January 2012 Archives

Dear AntAsk,

I am a fourth grader, and I am doing a science project. I am required to ask an ant expert questions about my science project. Can you please answer the following questions? When you are testing ants, do they run for survival? What happens when you try to grab ants?

Thank you,

Thumbnail image for MyrmeciaPil7_stinging.JPG

Myrmecia piliventris stinging Alex Wild, who broke into the ant nest (photo by Alex Wild).

Dear Monica,

Thank you very much for your great question! Ants can react in two different ways when you try to grab them: Either they try to escape or they try to attack you. Some ants (all belonging to one particular subfamily, the Formicinae) spray formic acid, some other ants sting (for example bullet ants or Acacia ants) for defense. I find that ants usually try to escape unless you are working directly at their nest site. Once you try to grab them at their nest, they want to defend the nest and will even sacrifice their lives.
I hope this answers your question!

All the best,
Steffi Kautz and the AntAsk Team


I'm doing a biology project about evolution and I was wondering if ants, specifically the common carpenter or fire ant, has any vestigial features, and what may have been their function.


Hi Haley,

This sounds like a very interesting biology project! Vestigial traits are reduced or incompletely developed structures. These features are non-adaptive and have no function, but are clearly similar to functioning organs or structures in closely related species. Vestigial traits are homologous among related species and are evidence for common descent and a shared evolutionary history. In ants, vestigial traits have not been extensively studied and there are just a few examples. Remains of wings in the worker cast, called "gemma" have been described in some ant species: in pupae of the ponerine Diacamma ceylonenese (Baratte et al. 2005), in larvae of the red imported fire ant Solenopsis invicta (Bowsher et al. 2007), and in Pheidole morrisi (Sheibat et al. 2010). Vestigial spermatheca are present in some basal ant lineages (Gobin et al. 2008). These vestigial traits are particularly interesting as the queen caste still possesses functional wings and functional spermatheca, but the workers do not. Workers cannot fly and mate. Some ant lineages are sting-less, but possess vestigial traits of the sting apparatus, for example the entire Formicinae subfamily. This subfamily includes the genus Camponotus (carpenter ants). Other vestigial traits are the absence of functional eyes in army ant species (see photo of Eciton burchellii below). These ants are blind, but show remains of the eyes.

army ant.jpg

Soldier of the army ant Eciton burchellii with vestigial eye structures. Photo by Alex Wild (www.alexanderwild.com).

Here are the relevant citations:

Baratte S, Cobb M, Deutsch J and Peeters C. 2005. Morphological variations in the pre-imaginal development of the ponerine ant Diacamma ceylonense. Acta Zoologica 86: 25-31.

Bowsher JH, Wray GA, Abouheif E. 2007. Growth and patterning are evolutionarily dissociated in the vestigial wing discs of workers of the red imported fire ant, Solenopsis invicta. Journal of Experimental Zoology (Mol. Dev. Evol.) 308B:769-776.

Gobin B, Fuminori I, Billen J, Peeters C. 2008. Degeneration of sperm reservoir and the loss of mating ability in worker ants. Naturwissenschaften 95:1041-1048.

Shbailat S J, Khila A, and Abouheif E. 2010. Correlations between spatiotemporal changes in gene expression and apoptosis underlie wing polyphenism in the ant Pheidole morrisi. Evolution and Development 12: 580-591.

I hope this helps!
Steffi Kautz & the AntAsk Team


I was just wondering if you knew what type of ants these critters are? I live in Florida if that helps.

K. Brown






These appear to be ghost ants (Tapinoma melanocephalum), a notorious so-called "tramp" species that is well-established in Florida. The species epithet melanocephalum literally means "brown head", owing to its distinctive bicoloration. Here is a previous post that addresses the role of ghost ants as pests in the home and also provides links to a number of articles that can tell you more about the appearance and ecology of this species.


Alexandra Westrich & the AntAsk Team

My 3 year old daughter found this insect on her bicycle
from Santa in Chile. I have contacted some local entomologists but this
specimen may be introduced. so, a more experienced entomologist may be
needed. My wife found your website and since you work with such a high
number of species, you may have a better understanding of what this
specimen may be or where to look.

It looks and behaves as an ant, but its head (rostrum) is quite
different as you will see. Any idea?




Dear Gian,

The insect that your daughter found looks a lot like an ant, but as you noticed, its head and mouthparts give it away as another type of insect mimicking an ant. All ants have mandibles that they can use for chewing in one way or another but this insect appears to have piercing mouthparts and is likely a member of a hemipteran group that look a lot like ants. We have several posts on ant mimics here, here, here, and here that you might find interesting.

Thanks for your question,
Ben Rubin & the AntAsk Team