This summer has been unusually dry--we've had something like 2 inches of rain the entire summer (we average over 3 inches per month). As a mushroom guy, I've found it quite depressing. One day I woke up and the yard was a bit damp. I quickly moved from place to place to try to find live revived by the moisture. This may be Mycena corticola.
The north facing side of the shingle roof of our shed is thickly decorated with British soldier lichen.
A nearly hexagonal raft of infinitesimal bubbles on our bird bath.
Ants in general don't seem to be suffering in the drought, at least it seems many species are doing fine.
Tapinoma melanocephalum, the ghost ant, was featured on my 280 days of Urbpandemonium post on New Years Day. Here are some more shots of this interesting little invasive pest species. Here is a worker on the edge of a thin sheet of plywood.
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The presence of the jeweler's loupe here is a hint that this is a very small organism. We generally think of ants as small animals, but this species is the smallest I've ever seen. Each worker is just about 1 mm in length.
Their size and distinctive coloration--dark in the front with light legs and abdomen--identifies them as ghost ants Tapinoma melanocephalum*. Like many inhabitants of the great indoors, their origin is not precisely known. They are from the Old World Tropics for sure, narrowing it down to roughly a third of the surface of the planet.
A colony could form in a pile of dead leaves, or in between a plant pot and it's protective liner. As long as the place is warm and humid, the ghost ants can live happily, feeding on miniscule amounts of sweet things and dead insects. When a colony is successful, some amount of it departs to become a new colony--"budding" instead of the complex new colony creation that some other eusocial insects endure. Besides all the tropics and heated greenhouses in the world, ghost ants live in Florida and Texas, and appear to be spreading.
* Humble and dark-headed
When people tell me they have ants indoors, I ask how big. If they say small, they're probably pavement ants or odorous house ants that are nesting in the cement of the floor or foundation. If they say big, well, then I know the building is in need of repair. Often I'll ask if the ceiling leaked last time it rained--usually it did. These eastern black carpenter ants Camponotus pennsylvanicus* only move in if there's some nice water-damaged wood for them to nest in.
The main nest is in the dead part of a live tree. The ants travel across the branches at night, into the upper levels of wood construction of a building. If there's water damaged wood they can work with their mandibles, they'll bring over several dozen of their larvae. They bring the larvae not just to have a ready-made supply of new workers, but to help them eat. Adult ants can't eat solid food, so they bring bits of insects to the larvae, who chew them up and regurgitate liquid the adults can lap up. Besides dead insects, carpenter ants like sugar-rich foods, like aphid honeydew and discarded and carelessly stored human food.
Carpenter ants are a critical part of the forest ecosystem. They move into trees that have been weakened by fungi to build their nests. Large woodpeckers come to feed on the colony, opening up cavities in the dead wood. Cavity nesting birds depend on these sites to reproduce. Wood ducks, for example, are unable to make their own cavities in which to nest, and thus depend on woodpeckers, carpenter ants, and wood decaying fungi in order to successfully reproduce.
* Camponotus means "flat back", referring to the flattened or weakly curved dorsal mesosomal profile of most Northern Hemisphere species.
Last fall we had a Norway maple cut down. It doesn't quite know that it's dead yet, and has been spending the early part of the spring oozing sap up to the stump. This weekend I noticed this swarm of ants gathering to lap up the sweet juice.
The two nodes between the thorax and abdomen, along with their size and color, strongly imply that these are Tetramorium sp., commonly called pavement ants. Pavement ants are native to Europe, but have become very common in New England, adapting readily to urban ecosystems (note the common name).
So this is me trying to get a good shot of an ant with my new camera, through a loupe.
Here it is without the loupe (just enlarged and cropped in iPhoto)
Through the loupe, then enlarged and cropped in iPhoto. You can see the two nodes on the petiole between the thorax and abdomen. These were critical (along with other field markings) in identifying this ant as Tetramorium sp., the pavement ant.
None for you Jockamo! Enjoy your blue ice treat instead.
If someone says they have "big black ants" it's almost always Camponotus pennsylvanicus. These carpenter ants are the largest and most common wood-damaging ants in North America. The main nest is in the dead wood of a living or standing dead tree. Workers take some of the larvae with them to create satellite colonies in other trees, or in the water-damaged wood of a house or other human-built structure.
The adults are unable to eat solid food, so they feed solid food to the larvae who regurgitate liquid that the adults can consume. In this case (and in at least one other case I've dealt with) the food source was live crickets being kept to feed zoo animals. The carpenter ant workers use their powerful mandibles to chop up the helpless microlivestock into small bits.
The long-term fix for a carpenter ant problem is a carpenter. Remove all the water-damaged (fungus-infected) wood and replace it with dry wood, and the ants won't be able to live there.
An ant (probably Formica subsericea, the host species to our slave making ants) and her herd of aphids on a stem of Cosmos.
Every once in a while I'll tell Alexis that she's pretty, and she looks at me like I told her that I like toothaches. I took this picture to prove both things.
Citronella ants Lasius sp. are common ants in the environment, but unfamiliar to most people. For my part, I only became aware of them when I was called in to deal with a swarm emerging from cracks in the cement floor of a building a few years ago. They live most of their lives under the ground, feeding on the honeydew from aphids that feed only on roots. (I only became aware of root-feeding aphids when I discovered that one fungus species is known to associate with them.) According to bugguide, this early October reproductive flight in progress is toward the end of when these events are likely to happen. Unless of course the ants are nesting below a heated building, then it could happen in the middle of winter.
These ants are called citronella ants because they smell strongly of citronella when crushed. I'm not a big fan of obtaining identifications through lethal means, but it's hard to feel too too bad about killing a single colonial insect.
Here's a very random set of photos that are in my folder preventing me from doing anything else until I post them. This first one is an ant doing something weird, I think tending a scale insect to get honeydew, but I've never really seen a scale insect and don't know if that's what this is.
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I sent this photo to bugguide.net to hopefully identify the species of ant but I haven't heard anything yet. This is the time of the year that the ants hang around on the developing peony buds, feeding on nectar that forms on the outside. Folk biology claims that ants are needed for the proper development of the flower, but this is not true. It's fairly likely (but hard to prove or disprove) that the ant and the plant are not even from the same continent, and that the observed relationship is a relatively new opportunism.
The day before Irene blew into New England, there was a mysterious storm of flying insects over the Boston area. Just at dusk, the insects hung in the air lazily, not flying strongly nor appearing to orient toward anything in particular. A few randomly stuck to my sweaty skin, and I examined them not particularly rigorously, deciding they were ants.
A sudden appearance of hundreds of thousands of insects is usually a reproductive event. Male non-biting midges gather in enormous hovering columns, for example. Ants, which spend most of their time inconspicuously on and under the soil, suddenly irrupt by the thousand, bearing wings. These reproductive flights are brief, and the ants live only long enough for the one event, being snapped up by bats and swifts and other opportunists. It's likely that the strangely coordinated appearance of so many insects included large groups of predatory bugs taking advantage of the sudden increase in the food supply.
The photos are from the kiddie pool in our yard. Almost all the insects seen are winged ants ("alates" the entomologists call them) but a few, including the one on the far left of the first photo are other creatures.
I don't know if the impending storm had anything to do with the insect swarms, but everyone in Boston was aware of Irene, and many had felt an earthquake only a few days earlier. The apocalyptic sense of it all was hard to dismiss. For me, natural occurrences always turn out to be much more interesting than our fantasies about them.
This funnel-weaving grass spider (Probably Agelenopsissp.) has built its web on the back of the shed, positioning the narrow part of the tunnel under a loose piece of sheet metal. Other spiders of this type are all around the yard--in the rock wall by the driveway, the tall weeds along the small yard fence, and so on.
If you are compiling a list of creatures that live around people and their buildings, this spider is a reliable entry. It is unreliable, however, when it comes to assigning it a common name. I have chosen one that I previously rejected as too cumbersome because it avoids confusion with many other spiders, including Australia's deadly funnel web spider. The funnel-weaving grass spider spins a sheet-like horizontal web with a narrow tunnel hidden in the back. The spider waits in the tunnel for a vibration indicating an insect has fallen in the trap. One imagines that crickets and grasshoppers, flinging themselves into the air willy-nilly, are common prey. Blundering flies, moths, and caddisflies are likely as well.
A slavemaking ant placed into this web was investigated, then deliberately ignored by the spider. I felt a little bad about the trapped ant, but only a little.
"Help meee! YOU BASTARD!"
This type of spider was 365 urban species #265, and was in the Urban Nature Picture for September 3, 2010.