Ant Hunting in a Rare Illinois Sand Prairie

Sand Ridge State Forest, Illinois

It’s been too long since I’ve done a good old-fashioned anting expedition. So I took a break on Wednesday to see a part of Illinois rumored to be profoundly different from the rest of the state: Sand Ridge State Forest, a quiet patch of public land southwest of Peoria.


The unique character of Sand Ridge stems from its geologic history. The glaciers ended here, dumping a pile of sand atop the resident clay. The soils here are dry and well drained, a stark contrast to the surrounding tallgrass prairie. As Sand Ridge is too nutrient poor to farm, the land was preserved as a blend of shortgrass sand prairie and woodland.

Asclepia tuberosa

The sandy soil hosts a relatively xeric plant community. If you click on the image below, you’ll see a high-res photo of the sand prairie ground cover. Look for the Opuntia prickly-pear cacti. Yes- that’s a cactus, in the Land of Lincoln!

Opuntia prickley-pear cacti at Sand Ridge State Forest.
Click to embiggen.
Pheidole bicarinata
Pheidole bicarinata may be the most widespread species in its genus in North America. I’d last seen them in the southwestern deserts. Here they are in central Illinois, scavenging a stink bug.

Sandy soils support a correspondingly different ant community, and I was fortunate to spend a few hours stalking the local myrmecofauna. Several species I’d never seen in Illinois before. Below are a few of the better captures from the afternoon.

The charming Aphaenogaster treatae can be recognized by the lobes at the base of the antennae.
Formica dolosa
Portrait of Formica dolosa.
Crematogaster lineolata
Crematogaster lineolata carries a pupa to safety after the photographer so rudely disturbed her nest.
While Myrmica taxonomy generally gives me a headache, I’m reasonably confident this one is Myrmica spatulata. Please let me know if you have a better opinion, though.
The highlight of the afternoon was the vicious clouds of Apocephalus ant-decapitating flies that descended on a hapless colony of Camponotus chromaiodes nesting in a rotting log. This photo is just a teaser; I’ve got a full series on these to post later.
A species I’d never seen before, Temnothorax texanus, nesting in the sandy soil. An extra wide postpetiole is the taxonomic giveaway.
Monomorium minimum
Of course, some species that appear everywhere don’t seem to care about the uniqueness of Sand Ridge. Here’s Monomorium minimum, which also nests in my front yard in Urbana.
Formica incerta gathering nectar from Queen Anne’s Lace.
Face to face with a microgyna-group Formica species. I admit this one has me stumped for an ID. I *think* it’s F. knighti, maybe. Would someone please revise this genus?
Another shot of the mystery Formica foraging on milkweed.
Lasius neoniger
A nest of Lasius neoniger.
The more astute among you will recognize that this colorful animal is not a true ant but a velvet ant, Dasymutilla occidentalis. This shot was taken in the studio after I’d brought the animal indoors.
Sand Ridge State Forest
An oak tree stands still for a portrait.



18 thoughts on “Ant Hunting in a Rare Illinois Sand Prairie”

  1. James C. Trager

    We have a lot of nice habitats around here, but no significant sand deposits. This post gives me sand envy.

    BTW – Your Myrmica spatulata might be the species known as “AF-sculpt” at Ant Web. I can’t see the scape base process well enough to be sure either way, but for real M. spatulata, it should be really ladle-like and essentially perpendicular to the main shaft of the scape, like this

      1. Has anybody explained the function of ant exoskeleton sculpturing (other than the muscle attachment thang) ? The micro-structures of insects are so interesting — so much to learn and so much else to do. I found those spatulate setae on some ants so interesting looking – curious about those too.

    1. Plenty, actually! I found quite a few in with the Crematogaster, but since they are fast and difficult to photograph, I decided against shooting them, especially since I’ve already got a few shots of that species.

  2. Henry W. Robison

    Great post Alex! We here in Arkansas have some unusual sand habitats in SW Arkansas that probably hold interesting ants! I know the vegetation is unique with Opuntia being found there also. Another great job of beautiful photography Alex1 You da best!

  3. Pingback: Another Sand Ridge Myrmica Headache – MYRMECOS - Insect Photography - Insect Pictures

  4. Great shots.
    what type of good to bad ratio do you get?
    How fast is your flash cycle time and do you shoot any in continuous mode (can you?)
    Are these with your 7d and 65mm macro?
    How are you able to get so low to the ground? Some seem like you had to dig the camera down or the ant environment was at least 1/2 inch above the ground.
    Do you use a 90 degree viewfinder?

    1. Lots o’ questions, Scott! Let’s see.

      1. I recently calculated that about 3% of my exposures are good enough to upload to my galleries.
      2. The only thing I shoot in continuous mode is roller derby. For insects, flash usually cycles about once or twice a second, depending. I do have an external battery pack that allows rapid recycling, several per second, but at the risk of frying my equipment if I overuse it. I’m much more likely, in an action situation, to bump the ISO to 400 or 800, which allows me to turn the flash down to 1/8 to 1/32 power and gain in cycling time.
      3. These are mostly with 7D and MP-E, the phorid fly is with the Canon 100mm macro, and the landscapes are with the 6D and 17-40 f/4 L wide angle zoom.
      4. I’m lying on the ground for the soil shots, as low as I can manage. Sometimes I’ll dig in a little to get lower. The acrobat ant nest was in a log and slightly raised, and the Formica were on vegetation.
      5. I do not use a 90 degree viewfinder.

      Hope this helps.

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