Introducing a Guide to the Ants of North America

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No, not really. I’m just kidding. Wouldn’t it be great to have an ant field guide, though?

Off and on for the past couple years I’ve been playing with concepts. A potential format is this (click to download pdf):


The salient features, in my opinion:

  • Targeted at the general naturalist, so less technical than the excellent Fisher & Cover guide
  • Organized around genera, as species IDs remain problematic without microscopes
  • With synopses of the most commonly encountered species
  • Containing brief chapters on ant ecology, collection, culture, etc

But that’s what I’d like in an ant book. The reason I’m posting this little teaser is to learn what you would like in an ant book.

What information should be covered? What do you like and dislike about the sample above? Would you prefer a guide that is more comprehensive and heavy, or more concise and portable? Should we sell it as an iPhone app in addition to, or instead of, a book? What do you think?

[note: Yes, I do know of the other ant guide effort. There is a significant chance that our projects will merge- in which case your feedback here will be useful to an even greater number of people].

39 thoughts on “Introducing a Guide to the Ants of North America”

  1. I prefer more comprehensive guides as I’m not one to take my books into the field (or even on a plane to leave in the hotel). They stay on the shelf and come out when I’m looking at my photos and/or specimens.

    Seems completely reasonable to organize around genera if species can’t be determined by the target audience. However, I assume there are at least some easily distinguished species so I’d not make that a hard and fast rule. So maybe following a genus section like the above, include some easily recognized species profiles.

    I like the little silhouette of the ant to scale in the upper left. In fact, I like everything and especially the heavy use of images.

    Make sure to include a glossary (what’s an antennal scrobe?).

    Any application should be in addition to the book in my opinion. Available separately, but free/discounted with the book.

    1. Thanks for stopping in, Troy. I *really* appreciate your feedback on insect identification, as I know you’ve spent a great deal of time grappling with some of these same decisions with bugguide.

  2. I think you’ve pretty much encapsulated all the main points. One thing that would be really nice (and that might be hard to implement, seeing as how other guides I’ve seen are all really bad at it), would be some way to organize by region. It is a tremendous distraction for an amateur in, say, the upper Midwest to have to wade through ten guide entries that are only found in the deep south or far west for every one species that might actually be found where he is.

    1. Yeah, that’s a tough one- some genera (like Camponotus and Tapinoma) are found everywhere, so a guide organized by region would contain a lot of repetition among the sections. Here’s where an interactive app would really shine.

      What I may do is include a page for each biome that lists the conspicuous or unique elements in each fauna.

  3. As a birder for many years, range data for species is an invaluable shorthand way to whittle down the possibilities when it comes to fast identification of an animal. A simple map (similar to the genera map) or “Recorded In:” section would be a mighty aid. Whatever the final content, I would definitely be hopping up and down to purchase this.

  4. Cool, I’d love to see something like this.

    I’d second all the points above. As a photographer, I’m mainly interested in guides like this to identify animals I’ve already shot and give me ideas of new ones to look for. I’m also interested in things I can look for in the field, like seasonal behavior, unique anatomy on large-ish scale, predators and prey, things like that rather than fine microscopic details or internal anatomy that’s interesting but not really observable.

    It’d also be neat if the guide included common ant mimics and farmed aphids, though I really don’t know enough about them to judge whether that’s practical or not.

    I like having a physical book to flip through, but it seems to me that an iPhone app would be perfect for an interactive identification key. An offline app would be better than web-based, for those of us with iPods or poor reception.

    1. Thanks, Michael. One thing I’m curious about is how much of the market for this guide is photographers. I don’t think this book would have been economically viable prior to the advent of affordable digital photography. Cameras suddenly put ants into the realm where most people can see them- at least enough to pick the genera.

  5. Looks very good. I would be more interested in a more comprehensive volume because taking guide books out into the field is not usually an option when you are a general naturalist or photomacrographer.

    I would like to see side by side illustrations comparing the main distinguishing features between the different genera (and perhaps the more common species) within a family.

    I also like to see all nature related books refer to evolution in some way, so something like phylogenetic trees and a chapter on ant origins and diversification would be a nice touch.

    1. Excellent. I was planning on a phylogeny schematic as well as some bits on social evolution. Perhaps a few fossils, too. I’ve been kind of itching to cover ant evolution properly after the poor treatment of ant evolution elsewhere.

  6. I’m neither a photographer nor a naturalist, nor someone whose day job regularly deals with ants, just some random guy who’s had a longtime interest in ants.

    One thing I’d like to see is a very quick blurb on each entry how that genus interacts with humanity – crop damage, building damage, pest control, recycling nutrients, etc. It can be very handy for members of the general public to have such a resource when they see a lot of ants around their home and they want to know what, if anything, could or should be done. (In particular I’m thinking of friends who get worried about “infestations” and I need a quick answer to reassure them that they do not (or do!) need to wipe out the colony or risk, say, thousands of dollars in replacing a wall or windowsill.)

    1. Yes! An excellent suggestion, Matt. The thing is, the majority of ant species have relatively little interaction with humans, preferring pristine or cryptic habitats. But if including this information in the book leaves the impression that most ants aren’t pests, I’m all for it.

  7. That title (with the image below) made my heart skip a beat. A harsh sort of tease, Alex!

    Speaking from the Puget Sound, regionality is very important to me, also. Though I don’t envy you the task of compiling range maps.

    I would spend the first 3/4 of each entry with the beautiful photographs and descriptions. That’s the part that will enchant the readers. Sadly, a lot of it is only accessible if you have good magnifying equipment. I’d save the last half page of the entry for a description of the ant as seen by a naked eye observer. The ant depicted life size, a typical nest, are they fast/slow, shiny/dull, aggressive/shy, solitary/seen in groups, what time of day they are most often observed, etc. That will help the kids without a lot of equipment.

    In my bird book, the “Most Often Confused With” field is helpful.

    Mating times (dates and times of day) would be really nice.

  8. I recommend taking a look at Bernhard Seifert’s Die Ameisen Mittel- und Nordeuropas. It combines identification keys, accounts of each genus and many individual species, and a broad general discussion of ant behavior, reproductive strategies, and environmental impact, all in a reasonably compact book. It also has plenty of photos, including some credited to Alex Wild. Hard to make a North American equivalent because of the greater number of species, but still worth looking at. Perhaps separate Eastern and Western North America books would work better.

  9. There is a field guide called On a Trail with Ants for the ants of India. It played a major role in helping me identify ants. I spent quite sometime online looking for identification of ants of Canada, but did not come across any layman-friendly sources. I’d love to have a comprehensive, detailed book over a pocket-guide. I love the layout on this one! Thanks a lot!

  10. Oh, it would be fabulous if each species came with a picture or drawing labeled with its identifying features – parts/colors/shapes/sizes of things that would help one distinguish.

    I love your blog, sir. Please keep it coming!

  11. The suggestions are excellent, so I won’t add to that. I think there is a strong need for a iPhone-type resource that deals with arthropods generally. It needs to have spectacular images as well as information dealing with ecology, geographic range, human interactions/impacts and labeled spot characteristics that can be used by the novice in identification. A link to similar organisms with labeled spot characteristics that allow the user to differentiate between closely-related, or morphologically similar, organisms would be ideal.

    In addition to taking ideas from people who read this blog (and we are really a pretty homogeneous group when all is said and done) the author of such a work could profit from looking at existing arthropod (not so good) and bird (better) apps. The publicly available feedback regarding where these apps fall short is really valuable at the site where you pirchase each app. These first hand accounts regarding what Joe User was hoping to be able to find/expecting and what he actually got are invaluable.

    Marketing such an entity could be fairly easy. The work might be best served by having the author write two (or maybe three) versions of the work. The first edition, focusing on common, economically significant and household associated species should be free. The second version, available for less than $10, should be significantly more comprehensive with the same quality detail for each species. The author might even add sounds (if appropriate) similar to Elliott and Hershberger’s The Song of Insects, but obviously on a much smaller scale. Schools, 4H and extension folk, gardeners and homeowners who were sufficiently engaged with the free versions may well purchase the pay-for upgrade edition after seeing the utility and quality of the free version. Marketing broadly to all of those groups would be a simple matter since all have newsletters, and sections of the national publications are devoted to freebies. Educators, no matter the level or organization, love freebies… Apple would be the source for both versions, so authors wouldn’t have to deal with that.

    Anyway, I just answered a different question than the one you originally posed, but it did get me thinking, and I guess that’s what the blogosphere is all about!

  12. The suggestions are excellent, so I won’t add to that. I think there is a strong need for a iPhone-type resource that deals with arthropods generally. It needs to have spectacular images as well as information dealing with ecology, geographic range, human interactions/impacts and labeled spot characteristics that can be used by the novice in identification. A link to similar organisms with labeled spot characteristics that allow the user to differentiate between closely-related, or morphologically similar, organisms would be ideal.

    In addition to taking ideas from people who read this blog (and we are really a pretty homogeneous group when all is said and done) the author of such a work could profit from looking at existing arthropod (not so good) and bird (better) apps. The publicly available feedback regarding where these apps fall short is really valuable at the site where you pirchase each app. These first hand accounts regarding what Joe User was hoping to be able to find/expecting and what he actually got are invaluable.

    Marketing such an entity could be fairly easy. The work might be best served by having the author write two (or maybe three) versions of the work. The first edition, focusing on common, economically significant and household associated species should be free. The second version, available for less than $10, should be significantly more comprehensive with the same quality detail for each species. The author might even add sounds (if appropriate) similar to Elliott and Hershberger’s The Song of Insects, but obviously on a much smaller scale. Schools, 4H and extension folk, gardeners and homeowners who were sufficiently engaged with the free versions may well purchase the pay-for upgrade edition after seeing the utility and quality of the free version. Marketing broadly to all of those groups would be a simple matter since all have newsletters, and sections of the national publications are devoted to freebies. Educators, no matter the level or organization, love freebies… Apple would be the source for both versions, so authors wouldn’t have to deal with that.

    Anyway, I just answered a different question than the one you originally posed, but it did get me thinking, and I guess that’s what the blogosphere is all about!

  13. Yes, skip the book and make it a mobile application. Infinitely expandable and easier to update. Use the built-in GPS to identify the region and narrow the range of species displayed. Allow users to upload data to a citizen science project. A continuous source of revenue instead of a single publishing deal.

  14. I’ve always been keen on field guides which use some line drawings to supplement photographs. In my opinion a good quality illustration can show more subtle features, and when combined with photographs really can aid identification.

    This book is aimed a little more towards those with entomological knowledge, but check out the illustration on page 16 of this preview to get an idea of what I mean:

    http://books.google.com.au/books?id=DQLb3eYItl8C&printsec=frontcover&dq=andersen+ants+guide&source=bl&ots=37vX-3igsX&sig=WC99jZDfA97XAh8xI_lL-tYcYyc&hl=en&ei=HsSuS67QEdKHkAWlnLWvDQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CAYQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=&f=false
    (The ants of northern Australia: a guide to the monsoonal fauna By Alan Neil Andersen)

    Just personally I would sway towards it being published as a book, possibly with supplemental electronic field guide. Books will always be my “go to” reference for a quick ID.

  15. tuckerlancaster

    I love collecting ants and love cataloguing them as well, but it is really tricky to identify ants with the available resources. This app/book sounds like a great idea. I think a very pertinent feature would be a dichotomous key to the different genera that included illustrations or pictures at each step. This would also be really good for the app. Rather than a written key, I would like to see an interactive key for the ipod. Here’s how I imagine it. When you opened the app, you would get a menu with options like search for a species, browse, identify, etc. If you clicked identify, it would launch the interactive key. Then the screen would be split in half. On one side would be a description and picture and on the other side another. Then, you pick the description that matches your ant by clicking it. Once you make your choice, it would automatically jump you to the next choice, until you narrowed it down to genus. At this point, it would take you to the page of that genus in the guide, and you have your ID. Also, on a lesser note, there should be a way to backtrack in case you get to the end and it’s not your ant in which case you could go back until you found your mistake. A key like this would be brilliant.

    1. I’ve been playing around with interactive keys for the wasp project I’m working on, and one thing I’ve acquired is a taste for matrix keys rather than dichotomous ones (that is, you select characters that you can see, rather than follow through a bifurcating path). So it’s more likely that the key will look like a Lucid or Delta format.

  16. The layout is excellent. The scale silhouette is in particular fantastic (hopefully when printed it could be 1:1) — I’d like to see it emphasized / more conspicuous — perhaps simply with a box outline. I also like the nest pictures / descriptions.

    As a non-expert, I would find the glossary suggestion above very useful.

    Finally, I’ll put my vote in for a physical book, whether or not there is also an app version.

  17. Herewith, I offer to be one of those people thanked for meticulously reading and commenting on the entire text, though not all of whose suggestions will have been followed.

    1. I was going to send you a manuscript whether you offered or not, James. There’ll certainly be large chunks of this thing where you’ll know a great deal more than I.

  18. Great idea, and I really like the preview.

    I would like to echo some of the comments about organization of taxa by region. I primarily use herp, mammal and plant guides when I travel. The Peterson field guide to western reptiles and amphibians (by Stebbins) provides one way to have a sort of regional organization in book form. In Stebbin’s guide, the species descriptions are arranged by family and genus. However the range maps are all in the back of the book, and refer to the page number for the species description. So when I go somewhere new, I will flip through the back of the book to easily skim range maps to get an idea of what I might run into. The Conant and Collins eastern US Reptiles and Amphibians field guide is now organized with the range maps associated with the species description, and I find that annoying.

    You could have the range maps for the Ant genera all in the back of the book, with references to page numbers.

    Since you are looking for amateur photographer input, have you thought of posting this as a topic in the discussion section of some of the big Flickr ‘groups’ on insects and macro photography?

    Mike

    1. Glad to have your input, Mike. I’ll have to think about consolidating some of the geographic information. Submitting this idea to Flickr isn’t a bad idea either.

  19. Looks great Alex! All the info you could hope to need in a very aesthetically pleasing package! I pretty well agree with almost all of the previous comments, and with input like this it’ll become an amazing resource!
    I’m not sure whether you hope to make this a profitable project or whether its more for the betterment of society, but may I suggest considering publishing it in the Canadian Journal of Arthropod Identification (I can’t seem to post a link, but Google finds it quickly)? CJAI is a totally open-access, web-based, peer-reviewed journal where richly illustrated keys, taxon pages, and any other identification aids that you wish to include are highly encouraged. In fact, the project you’re proposing is the main reason that CJAI was created (see Vespidae Atlas of Northeastern Nearctic, or Heptageniidae of the World: Key to Genera for examples) and can allow you to make resources as complicated as you may want (interactive database resources where habitat or range can be inputted to narrow down available taxa are being produced as we speak) and without the need to reinvent the wheel. The journal is freely available no matter where the reader is as long as they have an internet connection (including iPhones, Blackberries, and the upcoming iPad) so they can use the resources anywhere they want, from the field to the lab!
    I’d encourage you to contact the editorial board (Steve Marshall or Dave Cheung) for more information, or I’d be more than willing to answer any questions you have. Wherever this project ends up I can’t wait to see it, and I expect it’ll be a fantastic resource! Good luck!

    1. Thanks Morgan. Although I’m enjoying Zookeys- it’s really a great open-source taxonomy resource- the level of technical depth for that venue will likely be more than I’m looking for in this project.

      I envision the target audience for this effort to be someone who watches a NOVA episode on ants and wants to find out about the ants in their own yard. People who don’t own a microscope but might have a good macro camera.

  20. Call me a Luddite, but I like books! Apps are fine for others if that’s what they want, but I couldn’t imagine trying to identify every organism I encounter out in the field right then and there – time’s a wastin’. I’d rather sit in the luxury of my study and take whatever time is needed to compare my specimens/photographs with all available resources in my well-stocked library.

    That said, I prefer more comprehensive works – if I’m interested enough in a group to try to identify things to any level at all, I want to be able to go to the most specific ID that current knowledge will allow. Certainly not all ant genera are so problematic that the included species cannot be identified. Not all species need to be photographed, but for those that are not a brief statement of range and key characters would be desirable.

    The layout shown in the pdf is awesome!

    Of course, all of the above comments are from the perspective of an avowed taxonomist, so I likely represent a minority opinion for the target audience.

    1. Thanks, Ted. I think this will be a recurring issue in crafting the guide. How comprehensive can it be before becoming impenetrable to the lay audience?

  21. What might induce an acarologist to buy an ant book; or rather, buy a book on ants and not regret buying it? Well, photos yes, but the more natural history the better, and don’t limit it to an ecology chapter – put it on the genus/species pages. Ants are most interesting because of (their mites, but for the sake of argument) what they do.

    I’d also like to see the identifications go to species or species groups in the nasty genera. Generic identification isn’t really enough for most people any more, especially not for the people who photograph insects (probably a good part of your potential market). Have you seen any of the digital video microscope toys on the market? They aren’t that great yet; but technically, an everyperson microscope is almost within reach. Get ahead of the curve.

    I’m not sure that small screen aps are the way to go for ant identification, but I think you should consider matrix-based computer interactive keys. Anyone who has slogged through dichotomous keys knows their problems. I’ve published a half dozen or so Lucid keys – on the web and as CDs – and used them in teaching. Students, even novices, are more likely to get a correct identification with a matrix key. Matrix keys are much more powerful and easy to use – but take at least 10 times as long to write as a traditional dichotomous key. Maybe less for you, because you have many of the pictures on hand. However, for a matrix key to be maximally effective, you need to code every character for every taxon. This is good in a phylogenetic sense – you will get a better understand of ant morphology overall, because you will need to pay attention to characters that have not been used in all groups. There is a 2007 Annual Review of Entomology (52: 193-208) that compares matrix and dichotomous keys. Also, there are some less expensive, more supportive, alternatives to Lucid on the market now. XIDServices has a great key to North American weeds and a variety to regional wildflowers. Their builder is inexpensive and the support good.

    If you are committed to a book, then consider a book bundled with a computer disk. Put a traditional key to genera in the book and a matrix key (preferably to species) on the disk. You could use region as a character, or, a la XID, make regional keys to species. You can also put videos showing ant behaviours on the disk and many more pictures than you are likely to be allowed in the book.

    Books do seem to get more use than CDs and once you have gone through all the work it is nice to have a book for the shelves, but by itself, the dead-tree format is limiting. The worst thing is that it is fixed in time – once it is printed you are stuck with all the mistakes and cannot update name changes or advances in knowledge, add pictures, or extend the range of your book. I’m experimenting with a ‘living book’ – a pdf of a work in progress on the web that I’ve update three times now. If you want to check it out google ‘Almanac of Alberta Oribatida’ (NB – only dichotmous keys here because I had to learn a new fauna and write all the keys myself.) Of course, you already have experience in selling pictures on the web, so you could think about being your own publisher using this approach.

    1. These are excellent suggestions, macromite. Thoroughly appreciated.

      But, I can’t do it.

      Not a full species-level Ants of North America, however useful it may be. The fauna still lacks the basic revisionary work, especially for many of our biggest genera (like Myrmica, Aphaenogaster, and Lasius). To do the book properly at that depth is a ten-year project that would require external funding to cover salary and research expenses. And to be honest, I’m not the guy for it. My expertise is South American ants, and there are at least half a dozen folks (including our own James Trager) more knowledgeable about the Nearctic fauna than myself.

      That sort of project needs to be a collaborative venture on the part of the myrmecological community, and as you state, it will be best accomplished in an interactive electronic format.

      Rather, what I’m thinking about is a product that will almost intentionally disappoint the professional biologists like yourself. I’d like to aim for the hobby naturalists- the birders, the hikers, the people who like to photograph the bugs in their yard. People who watch a NOVA special on ants and decide they’d like to learn about the ants in the yard. The ideal book would be digestable to someone without a biology background, but (hopefully) might give them enough tools to start using antweb and the more technical literature on their own.

  22. Pingback: Ant-hunting at Clinton Lake – MYRMECOS - Insect Photography - Insect Pictures

  23. I’m just a hobbyist that wants to let you know that I think your field guide is a wonderful idea!–I found the Myrmecos website when I ran “Ant Field Guide” as a search through Google. I’m with Angela in that I thought I had found what I was looking for when I saw “Introducing a Guide to the Ants of North America” and I am disappointed that the book is not a reality as I cannot find a comprehensive user-friendly and well-illustrated field guide to North American ants. For your request that readers give input to this future work, I fear that I can offer nothing in the way of what should or should not be included in the guide. I simply want to encourage you to write it. As for the type of people that will purchase the book, I have no idea the number of photographers, amateur naturalists, college professors or libraries willing to purchase that will make the book economically feasable. But never underestimate the amount of people with general interests that will purchase a volume like this. It may be more folks than you think. As an example, I am certainly not well-to-do nor blessed with large amounts of leisure time. I am a retired letter carrier still working part-time in healthcare, but I have varied, perhaps “eccentric” interests. I feel certain that when Nikon developed their Microphot FXA research stand microscope and their SMZ 1000 stereo inspection microscopes and Leitz-Wetzlar developed the Orthoplan research microscope, probably neither company was terribly concerned about how many mailmen would purchase their microscopes because most blue-collar workers buy large screen televisions and SUVs, but I own one of each of these fine microscopes AND I like to look at ants. Being an older, “established” person I have a modest amount of discretionary income to blow on “toys” and “hobbies”. I am a guaranteed sale for your guide. How about you offer a “prepublished” offer where those of us that know we will buy the book give a commitment and perhaps some nonrefundable earnest money toward future purchase in exchange for your promise to see the project through? That will accomplish several things: you will see that there is a market for your effort, and also you will enjoy knowing that your efforts are going to be appreciated and that others are counting on you to finish the work. Also, publishing firms may be easier to work with when presented with a known minimum amount of sales to be made. Last but not least, I can stop searching Google and Amazon for something that does not appear to exist. If a good field guide does not seem possible, even a friendly textbook like Borror, Triplehorn, and Johnson’s “Insects” but specializing in ants with copious photographic examples would be great! Keep my email address and if you ever do decide to offer presales, send me a line with a link to the site. By the way, Thanks, and Good Luck with the project!……Kieran
    My Error! I do have a suggestion on something I think should be included in the book-Don’t forget to tell peiople that they do not need expensive and high-powered equipment to view the gross anatomical features of most ants. A good-quality 20X hand loupe works nicely. Seiko made some great ones several years ago that were reasonably inexpensive and I gave them as Chrismas gifts. Kids loved ’em, and the adults kept waiting for the kids to put them down so they could look at their own fingernails and hair!

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