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A redbud blooms along the eastern border of Konza Prairie, April 2013.

The prairies of central North America are especially harsh environments. Half a continent removed from the buffering effect of oceans, temperatures in the plains soar in summer and crash in winter. Winds, and often fires, surge across the landscape. The prairie is not an easy place.

Prairie is also an environment I don’t spend much time exploring, in spite of my current situation living as I do at their eastern edge in Illinois. So I was pleased when the entomology students at Kansas State University invited me out for a seminar last month. I spent a morning at Konza Prairie on the advice of James Trager, who had an unorthodox way of persuading me:

I hope you’ll get a chance to spend some quality time at Konza Prairie, especially in any recently burned areas, and have some good anting weather. On the several occasions I’ve been there, I’ve gotten the impression that ant abundance and diversity are both oddly low there, and you will be there at a really good time of year to check on this. I have visited there only in the heat of (a very hot) summer and early fall, less propitious times for anting.

An oddly low ant diversity? 

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A lack of ants is hardly the way to sell an excursion to a myrmecologist, but visit Konza I did. I was aided in my search for ants by one particular aspect of the landscape. Konza is full of rocks.

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Rocks warm up in the sun, and in spring when ambient temperatures are still low, ants move their early season broods up under the stones to incubate. With cool air, sunshine, and lots and lots of rocks, I had the perfect conditions to disprove James’ thesis.

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A morning’s photography is not a proper scientific survey, of course, but I was left with three general impressions:

  1. Konza’s ants are, in fact, quite abundant in spring in recently burned areas. Take that, James!
  2. Konza’s ants are, as advertised, not very diverse. Ok, I’ll give James that.
  3. A surprising number of nests host parasites.
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Yep. Lots of ants. (Forelius pruinosus)

Here’s my rather depauperate Konza species list:

  • Camponotus pennsylvanicus
  • Formica pallidefulva
  • Lasius neoniger
  • Forelius pruinosus*
  • Hypoponera sp.*
  • Crematogaster lineolata*
  • Pheidole dentata
  • Aphaenogaster rudis
  • Aphaenogaster tennesseenis
  • Monomorium minimum
  • Solenopsis molesta*

Ants with a “*” were ones that showed up under rock, after rock, after rock, after rock.

(added in update) Commenter FormicidaeFantasy has formally surveyed the ants at Konza, finding 29 species total. That’s a great deal more that I uncovered in a few hours of searching, but still pretty low for a latitude in the high 30s.

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Monomorium minimum working at the nest entrance.

Nearly every Crematogaster lineolata nest- and I found dozens- hosted ant crickets.

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Myrmecophilus sp.

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Myrmecophilus sp.

In a colony of Solenopsis molesta thief ants I discovered the oddest little wingless diapriid parasite:

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Bruesopria sp. probably develops on the larvae of thief ants (thanks to Facebook’s Hymenopterists forum for helping narrow the identification of the wasp!)

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Bruesopria sp. in with the thief ants.

I already blogged this ant over at CE, but here is a queen of the temporary nest-founding parasite Aphaenogaster tennesseensis who has successfully infiltrated a nest of Aphaenogaster rudis:

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Aphaenogaster tennesseensis queens are highly attractive to their Aphaenogaster rudis hosts.

Finally, because a prairie has more than ants, or so I’m told, here’s a bee:

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A small sweat bee visits a dandelion.