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. (more…)

Thief ant mating flights…

…happening this evening in Urbana. Photographic evidence:

Solenopsis molesta, thief ant winged queen

Thief ants are among the most abundant insects in the midwest, but most people will never see them. They are small- only about 2mm long- and spend most of their time underground. The large relatively large size of the queens indicates a species capable of raising new colonies from workers fed entirely on the body reserves of young queens like this one. She will fly off, mate, and tunnel underground when she finds a suitable nesting site.

Incidentally, this whole drama played out on our front walkway. Urban lots can host plenty of nature for those willing to look.

Solenopsis molesta, thief ant queen
Solenopsis molesta, thief ant queen

photo details:
Canon MP-E 65mm 1-5x macro lens on a Canon EOS 7D
ISO 250, f/13, 1/250 second
Diffused macro twin lite

A prairie restoration at Homer Lake, in HDR

I hardly ever subject images to the intense photoshopping of High Dynamic Range photography. HDR is just too often overdone. All the same, with half an hour on my hands at Homer Lake yesterday before the firefly show, why not kill some time?


The image is merged from 5 input files taken at different shutter speeds. To get a sense of what the camera records without manipulation, here is one of the component images:


You may have already seen the firefly picture that came later, if you follow me on facebook or G+. If you haven’t, here is about 10 minutes of Photinus pyralis above the restored prairie. Click on it to view large:



A Bee Eating Another Bee?


No, not a bee eating a bee. Even better! This is a bee-mimicking robber fly, Laphria, feeding on a honey bee. The fly casually alighted next to me in the garden this afternoon, as though it wanted to be photographed with a trophy kill.

Laphria is an exemplary bumble bee mimic. The flies not only look like bumble bees, they move and sound like them as well.


photo details:
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 macro lens on a Canon EOS 7D
ISO 400/800, f/14, 1/125 sec
diffuse off-camera strobe, handheld overhead

Spring arrives to the prairie garden

March came in like a lion. Then it became a grizzly bear, a shark, then, I think, a Tyrannosaur. Last week’s storm brought enough snow to close the University.


But today’s weather was a welcome change. Sunny with temps in the 60s, the last of the snow melted into the prairie garden. March has indeed gone out like a lamb.

So I dusted off my camera and went bug hunting. While the arthropod fauna is still meager this early in the season, the garden did yield some treasures. The photos below were all taken around 2 this afternoon.

A sawfly warms itself on a fence post.


An aerial view of the problem


This is a typical satellite capture from the middle regions of North America. We can gnash our teeth and pull our hair about disappearing bees and butterflies, but until we address the fact that approximately 100% of the ex-prairie landscape above is either plowed under, paved over, or lawned in, we’re just fiddling at the edges.

GMOs, pesticides, blah, blah, blah. We can blather on about these largely irrelevant side issues, but they are just that: side issues to the fact we have replaced a landscape covered by hundreds of plant species with a blanket of corn and soybeans. There is simply nothing left for bees and butterflies to eat. Insects that can’t eat soybean won’t eat organic soybean, either.

Back from Uganda, Off to Florida

Although I wish I could regale you with spellbinding tales of courage, blood, and African ants, I’m on a tight turnaround as I prepare for the BugShot photo workshop in Florida next week. Thus, Myrmecos will remain slow until afterwards. For those of you attending the workshop, I am looking forward to meeting you soon!

In the meantime enjoy this perilampid wasp, surely among the most beautiful of insects.

A parasitic wasps alights on a tree branch in Kibale Forest, Uganda.

February Flowers

not bad for an iPhone

Mid-February and central Illinois should be buried in snow. Instead, we’ve averaged 4-6 degrees above normal all winter. The crocuses are blooming, the daffodils are pushing up through the mud, and our resident Tapinoma are already raising up their first brood.


Here are some photos from just now.

A honey bee probes an early crocus for nectar.
First instar Tapinoma larvae are incubated under a sun-warmed rock. The first brood of spring!
A fly perches on a crocus petal.

Insect Fear Film Festival 2012: International Ant Films

1st place t-shirt design by Rob M.

February is the most exciting time of year in Chambana, Illinois. Why?

The Insect Fear Film Festival, of course!

Doors open at 6:00 pm, February 25th, at Foellinger Hall on campus. This year’s theme is International Ant Films, featuring the awful-yet-inexplicably-awesome ant thrillers Glass Trap (2005) and Bone Snatcher (2003).

The film festival also hosts a living insect zoo, an art contest, face-painting, and more! Visit the event web page for details.

And one more thing. Not only is this year’s theme amazingly anty, the accompanying artwork is well above par. Students and postdocs held a t-shirt design contest and the entries have been particularly inspired: