The Asian needle ant, an accidentally imported termite killer

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Thanks to myrmecologist Benoit Guenard, I recently had the opportunity to photograph live Pachycondyla chinensis in a laboratory setting. This species- sometimes called the Asian Needle Ant- was introduced accidentally to the southeastern United States over half a century ago, and where it occurs it seems to displace many native ants.

What is particularly odd about the displacement is that P. chinensis is primarily a termite predator. I wouldn’t expect a dietary specialist to have much effect on a more generalist native fauna, yet it does. Fortunately, the ecology of the invasion is the subject of active research by Benoit and others.

I found that placing live Reticulitermes termites near a hungry needle ant nest fragment induced reliable predation behavior, enough to capture a series of photographs, below:

On first contact, the ant holds the termite in her mandibles and immediately thrusts her stinger forward.
The termite often defecates in response to an injection of a massive amount of venom.
This termite is nearly subdued after a few seconds of stinging and the ant retracts her weapon.
Nestmates process the kill.
A termite kill can turn into a party.

photo details:
Canon MP-E 65mm 1-5x macro lens on a Canon EOS 50D
ISO 100, f/13, 1/250 sec, diffused twin flash
substrate is white mylar

17 thoughts on “The Asian needle ant, an accidentally imported termite killer”

  1. Hi Alex,

    Those are great pictures!

    Pachycondyla chinensis has been presented as a termite specialist in Japan, however I do not believe this to be true. In fact preliminary results that I have here suggest that termites might be only a fraction of their diet. What is true however is that P. chinensis is a real carnivorous ant, eating every arthropods they can grab (and sting, OUCH) and also scavenging on dead vertebrates.

    1. Yeah, I’m going to side with you on this one, Benoit. It seems unbelievable that a specialist would have such a devastating ecological impact.

    2. Benoit,

      I found these ants on the NCSU campus when I was a grad student there in the 70’s. Back then it was known as Brachyponera solitaria F. Smith. They were nesting under the railroad underpass by the road that connects the north and south campus not far from Gardiner Hall. Aspirating them was pretty nasty with all the road dirt.

      Terry

      1. Dear Terry,

        I am familiar with your work at NCSU and would love to talk more about it with you. Pachycondyla (Brachyponera) chinensis is now very common on NCSU campus in the remnants of forest patches as well as in more urbanized places, usually around older trees.

        I have collected ants on NCSU campus for the past 2 years now and if I combine your list (55 species) with our results (57 species) we now have 77 species recorded. Not bad for a place where four major invasive/exotic, Solenopsis invicta, Linepithema humile, Pachycondyla chinensis and Tetramorium sp. E are very common. I believe that the heterogeneity of microhabitats offered by urban environments can actually sustain a quite diverse ant fauna.

        1. Benoit,

          B. chinensis sure has spread around campus since I was there. And S. invicta and L. humile are now on campus? I’d be interested to compare lists. I grew up with Tetramorium sp. E – literally! They used to bite my neck when I was playing with blocks on the floor. I sent a sample from my mother’s house to Schlick-Steiner & Steiner for their study.

          I was also struck by the diversity of ants in urban environments and came to the same conclusion about microhabitats. As for invasives, they appear not to eliminate native ants, only to suppress their populations. The diversity is still there.

          If I can manage it, I hope to make it to Raleigh in October. I just got a call from an old grad school buddy wanting to know when I would visit again. I also want to see Andy Deans and crew, especially Ishtvan Miko to talk about Ceraphronoidea.

          Terry

      1. Well I always thought all Ponerinae species had 2 waist segments but the postpetiole connected to the gaster with a wide surface area. There also a wider looking bit of connecting tissue between the postpetiole and gaster that has a name but I forget what it’s called.

        Do waist segments vary in between genera in this subfamily?

  2. Also noteworthy is that they don’t simply go where humans go- they are found in otherwise undisturbed habitat. And I wonder, could the defecation also be a defensive response? In a small wooden tunnel it would be much easier to entangle your enemy in a foul and sticky secretion.

  3. I was thinking of the previous post: I definitely could care less, but I would have to be crying harder for the ant specimens.

    I do actually weep for the ants: I try not to crush the anthills in my rural driveway each morning!

    Sigh!

  4. Very nice. What happens to the venom? Does it break down or the ants are immune to it? I am wondering a bit about the chemical ecology here…

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