Most “Carpenter Ants” aren’t carpenter ants

A major worker Camponotus ephippium guards the entrance to her underground nest. (Victoria, Australia).

Since we’re on the topic of common names, a peeve of mine is the use of “Carpenter Ant” to refer to the genus CamponotusWhile it’s true some Camponotus– including the common North American wood-destroying C. pennsylvanicus– do carve chambers in wood, a great many others nest in the ground where woodworking is not much of a possibility.

An accurate common name for Camponotus is not an arcane problem. This is the single most widespread and abundant ant genus worldwide. If I were to recommend just one genus that non-specialists should recognize, it is this one. Camponotus is found nearly everywhere, often in abundance, and the genus is arguably the most species-rich in the world. With the possible exception of Pheidole big-headed ants, of course.

A thatch nest of Camponotus rufipes (Minas Gerais, Brazil).

Australians call theirs “Sugar Ants”. Camponotus novaehollandiae is the “Northern Common Sugar Ant“, for example. Insofar as all Camponotus like sugar that moniker is decent, but a sweet tooth is hardly a unique behavior among formicids. Still. It’s more accurate than “Carpenter Ants”.

Camponotus punctulatus happy digging away in the sand, no wood to be seen (Parque Nacional El Palmar, Argentina).

Unlike for Polyergus, where I have a decidedly unpopular suggestion, I don’t really know where to start for Camponotus.

Any thoughts?

19 thoughts on “Most “Carpenter Ants” aren’t carpenter ants”

    1. ‘Humpbacked ants’ indeed makes sense. It’s what Camponotus stands for anyway.
      In Dutch we also call them ‘giant ants’ but I guess that wouldn’t make sense in countries where bigger ants live.

  1. Yeah, even the majority of the tree inhabiting ones do little or no excavation of wood or even pith, and are what the bird folk would call secondary cavity nesters, utilizing mostly burrows made by beetles, or other sorts of pre-formed cavities in wood or bark or galls. And as you note, a huge number of species nest in the ground, especially in more arid climates, and of course, in grasslands.

    A name for them that has been lurking in the back of my mind for a while is square-headed ants. Really, rhomboid-headed might be more accurate for most, but is harder to say. However, the rounded-angular posterior and often anterior corners of the heads of Camponotus nearly always strike me as giving a square-ish appearance in the field, even at a quick glance.

  2. James C. Trager

    I have to add, for years I have had a different concept of what C. punctulatus looks like, compared to the picture above. Guess I’ll need to go back and look into that.

  3. James C. Trager

    Oh yeah, and … Now that the world’s species diversity of Paratrechina has recently doubled, I think your new, old header photo is appropriate.

    1. I first learned of the new species from Peter Hawkes, who was at Ant Course in Uganda. I was happy to see the paper come out, though trying to blog about it was apparently what broke my blog earlier this week.

  4. Alfred Buschinger

    As I recently said for slave-making or dulotic ants, I don’t see any advantage in a renaming of Carpenter Ants. In German they are called Rossameisen, Horse Ants, because of the size of the most conspicuous large species Camponotus herculeanus and C. ligniperdus. But it is the name of a group that also comprises (many) much smaller species.

    Another example would be the Wood Ants, genus Formica:
    One group that we are used to name subgenus Formica are the Mound-building Wood Ants, more exactly those forming thatch mounds. Most of them in fact are living in the forest, but one species, Formica pratensis, preferably nests in open grassland. So in German it is the “Wiesen-Waldameise”, “Meadow Wood Ant”. Sounds a bit silly.

    Formica subgenus Coptoformica with several species in Europe with rare exceptions is found in grassland. And Formica subgenus Serviformica (the “Slave Ants” of Polyergus and Formica sanguinea belong to this group) are preferably soil-dwellers, under rocks, and only occasionally build small hills of debris and soil. So, how to replace the name Wood Ants?

    “Thief Ants” were named after the behaviour of European Solenopsis fugax. But Solenopsis invicta (and its relatives) are “Fire Ants”. The “European Fire Ant”, however, is Myrmica rubra for Americans, named so after its introduction to Canada and Northeast USA. In Europe this species is the “Red Garden Ant”, a common native species the ecological impact of which is by no means comparable to that of S. invicta in N-America and other places. And then we have the “Little Fire Ant”, Wasmannia auropunctata…

    I think that when somebody gives a lecture or writes a popular paper, he or she anyhow has to explain what is meant with such trivial names and terms like “slave-maker ants”, because most people who believe to understand the term do not exactly know what it means in ants. Characterizing the behaviour and life history is even more necessary when using terms like dulosis, or less well-known “new” terms such as kidnapping, cleptergy, piracy, and what else has been suggested here.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Alfred.

      I’m not proposing renaming the carpenter ants- it’s a fine name for those species that tunnel through wood. Rather, it’s that the other, non-wood nesting species like our common Camponotus castaneus don’t have any common name at all, or people uncomfortably refer to them as “Carpenter Ants” just for lack of anything else. I don’t think we need common names to apply across entire genera, anyway. I’d just like some term I can use when talking with non specialists.

      Of course, I agree that when given a larger platform like paper or a lecture, we all ought to define our terms. This is more of a problem in contexts where we don’t have the opportunity to go into any depth, as in a passing reference or mention.

  5. I’ve been calling Camponotus nearcticus [Myrmentoma] the “kitchen ant” because I generally see them in kitchens. They like to drink from the kitchen sink, but I rarely see them in bathrooms. Perhaps they’re attracted to spilled sugar on the kitchen cabinets. They certainly like sugar. They once got into a bag of sugar I had carelessly left open. When I poured the sugar out, I inadvertently buried some. They shake like wet dogs when freeing themselves from the sugar crystals. This species is not known to make tunnels in sound wood, but are crevice nesters, even nesting in the door of my freezer!

    1. Alfred Buschinger

      Here I refer to my suggestion in this thread: :
      Andersen A. N. 2002. Common names for Australian ants. Australian Journal of Entomology 41, 285-293.
      Abstract: Most insects do not have common names, and this is a significant barrier to public interest in them, and to their study by non-specialists. This holds for even highly familiar insect groups such as ants. Here, I propose common names for all major native Australian ant genera and species-groups, as well as for many of the most abundant and distinctive species. Sixty-two genera, 142 species-groups and 50 species are given names. The naming system closely follows taxonomic structure; typically a genus is given a general common name, under which species-group and species names are nested.

      This author has tried to find common names for genera and species. Perhaps one or the other may be inspiring for naming the Carpenter Ants.
      It need not be that bizarre as “Cannibal Ants”, suggested for Cerapachys, “Sausage Cannibal Ants” (Sphinctomyrmex), or “Dolly Ants” for Dolichoderus. But in the sense of Andersen’s “Pony Ants” (Rhytidoponera, because it sounds in – wrong – English pronunciation similar to “riding a pony”), Camponotus might become “Camp Ants”, or perhaps “Campaign Ants” (because of the aggressive larger workers, but also reminding the campaigns of pest controllers). – You may find other inspiring examples in Andersen’s paper. 😉

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  7. I prefer to just call them Camponotus. I think it is a great sounding name, and unlike many genus names, it is pretty easy to say. There is no accurate way to sum up all the different species in this genus aside from the word Camponotus.

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