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A Chant For Ants

There are a few species of ants that haven’t endeared themselves to humans. But most of them go about their daily lives completely out of sight.

According to most experts, there are more than one million identified species of insects on Earth, and these experts estimate there may be as many as 30 million species of insects overall! That’s a lot of insects, and if you count them all compared to humans, it comes to about 200 million individual insects per person. The sheer weight of all the insects on Earth outweighs all other living beings (plants, animals, fish, etc) combined. Amazing diversity!

As an entomologist, my favorite bugs are ants. Ants are organized, structured and absolutely fascinating. It might surprise you to know that all worker ants are female. The males live long enough to mate with females from other nests and then die. Male ants don’t do any work in the colony.

Sure, there are a few species of ants that haven’t endeared themselves to humans by being nuisances in homes, stinging us in our yards or stripping the leaves off our favorite rosebush (leafcutter ants, I’m talking about you). These nuisances are in the minority; most species of ants go about their daily lives out of sight and out of mind.

There are more than 290 different species of ants in Texas alone, including more than 45 species of ants just in the San Antonio/Bexar County area! Some of the nuisances we know very well, like fire ants, sugar ants, carpenter ants, leafcutter ants and crazy ants. However, it’s all those other ants doing work out there that stay out of the limelight.

Here are some examples of really neat, local ants that most people have never heard of:

Cheese ants (Forelius spp.): you see these little orange ants trailing on the sidewalk in the middle of a hot summer day going super-fast in an organized fashion. These ants get their name because they smell like bleu cheese dressing when you smash them (Yes, I’ve done that. I’m an entomologist, what can I say?). These ants will kill very small fire ant colonies before they become large enough to make a mound.

Acrobat ants (Crematogaster spp.): these red and black ants live in hollow trees and other voids (sometimes walls). They have red bodies with black, heart-shaped abdomens. They get their name because they hold their abdomen forward over their head when upset and appear to be walking on their front legs like acrobats! These ants can’t sting, instead they stun their prey and enemies by spraying venom. They’re harmless to humans, but may be a nuisance in homes and have been known to cause damage to electrical switches and relays.

Big-headed ants (Pheidole spp.): big-headed ants are interesting because there are two different types of workers in the colony: major workers and minor workers. Minor workers are very small and major workers are larger and have giant heads (hence the name). Major workers use their strong jaws to break apart food (such as seeds), and leave pieces that are easy for the minor workers to carry back to the colony. Despite their giant heads and larger size, major workers are scaredy-cats and run away at the first sign of peril. These ants are almost never seen in homes and very abundant in the San Antonio area. Big-headed ants also kill small fire ant colonies before they get large enough to build a mound.

Through their daily activities and nest-building, ants help aerate the soil, eat insects and seeds, and clean up dead organic material on the surface. Having lots of native ants in your landscape can be a deterrent to the non-native fire ants that plague us all.

If you do have non-native fire ants (there is a native one), treat only the mounds you see so that you can leave the native ants to their business. If your fire ant infestation is too great, take advantage of the fire ants’ aggressive food collecting skills with a broadcast bait application that will dramatically reduce the fire ant population and help to re-establish the ant balance in your yard over time. Studies have shown that even with native ants in your yard, the fire ants will greedily gobble up that bait and disappear.

The next time you’re out and about and taking a break from staying indoors during the current public health crisis, take a couple of moments to look down and see who’s living in your lawn and landscape. You’ll find yourself watching those industrious ants moving soil, carrying food and marveling at their strength and organization.

Nathan Riggs
Nathan Riggs
Nathan Riggs is a SAWS project coordinator and licensed irrigator who also happens to have a degree in entomology from Texas A&M University. Yes, Nathan’s a bug expert, and not just on water bugs! When he’s not hard at work on SAWS conservation projects, he enjoys a wide variety of interests including: landscaping, hiking, photography of flowers, insects and other critters, and planning his next adventure with his wife Ella and family.
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