22 Jul 2013

Let’s Talk About Ants

by Jorge Ventocilla


Ants are everywhere…we should get to know them better. They can be found in large numbers, even larger than other species on earth. For example, in a leafcutter ant nest, you would find that there are more ants than there are humans in villages, towns and cities combined in Panama.

Unfortunately, just a few people (kids, biologists or other nature enthusiasts) pay attention to them. People mostly complain about “carpenter ants”, which tunnel into wood; “leafcutter ants”, which can ruin our gardens, or those small ants called “sugar ants” (also “crazy ants” because of their random movements).

We will talk about “crazy ants” first and then about “fire ants” or “red ants” (which are even less popular). Leafcutter ants deserve a full article to themselves and they will have one, in the future…

Sugar ants - Tapinoma melanocephalum – live mainly in kitchen and dining rooms. They will march together in long lines if there is any kind of food, especially if it is a sweet treat. These are not native to America: they came from Europe and Asia.

They don’t actually build a nest but they take advantage of holes and gaps in walls, kitchen countertops and bookshelves and even wall outlets for hiding their queen, eggs, larvae and pupae. If you have not been successful at getting them out of your kitchen, at least play with them. Take a Q-Tip previously soaked in honey or in a mix of water and sugar, write a name or draw something on the wall. Watch how a lot of them will come to drink and outline your drawing. 

Now, it is fire ants’ turn. I am sure that almost everyone reading this article,– if not everybody – have been bitten, at least once, by fire ants.  Nobody is immune, it is one of the fees you have to pay for living in the tropics and enjoying all its treasures. The most common fire ant in Central and South America is the Solenopsis germinata

Fire ants build their nests on the ground, with little elevation. However, the nests of leafcutter ants are very conspicuous, you are able to spot one from a significant distance because they look like small mounts. The nests of fires ants are more discrete and are barely noticed; however, they can have five or six underground tunnels up to 1 meter deep.

These nests go barely unnoticed until we step on them or worse, sit on top of them.  They will immediately let you know that you are not a welcome guest.

Fire ants actually feed on seeds and leaves and, occasionally, soft fruit. If you run into a fire ant when it is away from its nest, it won’t bite. The problem begins when we intrude. Each fire ant would continuously bite or sting up to three or four times.  In some sensitive individuals, this can cause fever.

As long as we, Homo sapiens remain on this planet (and even well after that), we will have to become good neighbors with ants. I am not saying that it is pleasant to be bitten by these ants, but at least we will know how to call them when they do: Solenopsis germinata!

If you don’t find this funny at all and you are tired of leafcutter, carpenter, fire or sugar ants or of any other type of ants, think about this: biologists have found 200 ant species in just the 3-square mile reserve of Isla Barro Colorado in the Panama Canal!


English translation by Sara I. Melo D.

Galeria de Fotos: 
Tapinoma melanocephalum
Nido de candelilla