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


Our backyard bees must have missed the memo about massive bee collapse. This week we harvested 90 pounds of honey from just two hives. It’s lovely!


The honey is a blend from dozens of floral sources, but based on the light tangy flavor I’d say linden, tulip tree, and clover predominate.

The internet is full of claims on the demise of honey bees, but be skeptical when listening to these stories. Most of the scary numbers (example: 31% of hives died this year!) reflect winter losses, not long term declines. Honey bees are insects, after all. They reproduce quickly enough to recoup cold season losses. A healthy colony can quintuple in a season, and overall colony numbers have remained steady year to year.

This isn’t to say bees aren’t faced with various stresses, and that the winter losses don’t pose a problem for early season pollination needs like almonds. But honey bees are still very abundant animals, enough so that talk of their imminent extinction is just bizarre.


Young ants only poop once

If you’ve ever looked at ant cocoons, you may have noticed they always have a dark spot at one end:

Lasius alienus – brood nest showing stained cocoons (Illinois).

What’s up with the spot?

There is no way to put it delicately: it’s poop. The dark spot is at the butt end of the developing ant. But this spot is not just any old poop. It’s a rather special one called a meconium.

Although young ants have been alive and eating for many weeks by the time they spin a coccoon, they never once passed their food all the way through. Ant larvae are massively constipated. Their waste builds up in the digestive tract as a strong, concentrated mass clearly visible through their translucent bodies:

Ochetellus sp. (Victoria, Australia)

Larvae hold the pellet in as it gets larger through several molts, and don’t expel it as a meconium until they transition to the pupal stage. So, young ants only poop once.

Of course, there is good reason for the extended constipation. Living in large groups in fixed nests, ants have a public health interest in not continuously soiling their nurseries.

Speaking as an expectant father myself, I admit to a little bit of jealousy of a species that manages but a single diaper change per offspring.

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

11 Astounding Arthropods You’ll See at BugShot/Belize. Plus, a Zombie Fungus.

As you may know, I teach photography workshops. We’ve got an outstanding one planned for September: BugShot Belize, and since we have a handful of registrations left I thought’d I’d mention a few prime reasons to attend.

Jack Owicki with a new amblypygid friend during the January workshop.

And by “reasons”, of course, I mean the wonderful biota you’ll spend the week admiring.

[register for BugShot Belize]

1. The pill millipede. Bother this adorable pink millipede and she goes into turtle mode for several minutes.


(update: it turns out this is even cooler than a regular pill millipede) (more…)

The Ant Parasites of Konza Prairie

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?  (more…)

These ants are doing a terrible job.

Few stories of mutualism in nature are more common than those of the honeydew-producing aphids and the ants that tend them. In theory, by attracting ants, aphids gain protection from predators. Yet, the Tapinoma in my garden are doing a simply horrible job of protecting their charges from anything. Here are some photographs from just now.


I watched as an aphidiine braconid strolled effortlessly among ants on the bergamot, nonchalantly injecting eggs into the helpless aphids. The ants didn’t seem to notice, or care. Here’s a closer crop of the above photo:


The ants also weren’t doing anything about the predatory syrphid fly larvae grazing through the herd. As if to prove its point, a larva camps out next to the mummified corpse of an aphid (the brown ball at lower left) that the ants failed to protect from a parasitoid wasp:


I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at the ants’ ineptitude. They can’t even protect themselves:


Oh, nature. Never quite doing what you’re supposed to.

***update. Ok, that last photo needs to be memed.