Category Archives: Bug Love
Every spring when I start working in the garden, I am reintroduced to my friends, the ants. I call them friends now, but years ago I didn’t view them quite so warmly. Like most, I would become unnerved if I moved a rock and found hundreds scurrying, dozens carrying eggs, rushing to get their precious cargo to a safer place. I never harmed them, but my squeamishness only began to weaken when a garden guru/friend said, “You know, they’re nature’s excavators. They aerate the soil. That’s a good thing.” My research showed the ones most prevalent in my garden, carpenter ants, did no harm to my plants. Nevertheless, last year I was a little disappointed to see a colony had overtaken an old whiskey barrel planter. It took a minute to decide to not plant there, to let them be. I told myself it would be the garden’s above-ground ant farm. Weeks later the self-seeded snapdragon seedlings were flourishing, along with the mini rose I had left there. Everything, was thriving. The ants were very happy, doing what they were intended to do in their little paradise.
DB Rudin’s fascinating piece on ants first appeared in Greenwoman #5. It’s one of my favorites. I hope you enjoy it.
Be Careful of Little Lives
Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider her ways and be wise:
Which, having no chief, overseer, or ruler,
Provideth her meat in the summer, [and] gathereth her food in the harvest.
Scripture praises ants, children are mesmerized by them, and yet ants in the garden are so commonplace as to be easily ignored by us adults. That however, would be a lost opportunity. Ants provide us a chance to witness the spectacle of miniature empires rising and falling in our own backyard.
It is not news that an individual ant is possessed of amazing physical abilities for its size. Scientists have put weaver ants upside down on glass where they can not only hold on but support 100 times their own weight. (Their secret is a liquid secreted from their feet.) However, ants don’t come into their glory as individuals; they all live in colonies and it is here that they shine.
There are ant colonies numbering only a few hundred individuals that fit into a single acorn (Temnothorax longispinosus) and others that include millions of individuals living in vast subterranean cities. One such grasscutter ant megalopolis was found abandoned in Argentina. Scientists pumped concrete into the entrances for days and when dry they carefully dug away the surrounding dirt. What they found was astonishing, a vast city where the ants had removed over forty tons of soil. It featured pathways and chambers that stretched down over 25 feet below ground. All accomplished without a central authority directing the activity.
It is easy to get swept away by the shock and awe of statistics, but it is the myriad ways that ants make a living that fascinates me. There are ant societies who make their communal living as farmers, ranchers, hunters and even slave raiders. One stormy July afternoon I discovered the hidden kingdom of the citronella ants, but that is a story for later.
Due to their complexity, ant societies are often thought of as the closest to human societies. And, like human societies, they have gone from strict hunters and gatherers to agriculturalists. Some of the most successful ants farm fungus in underground gardens. They feed their fungus grass or leaves harvested from their surroundings. Most amazing is that the fungus exists nowhere else in nature, besides the ants’ guts and their fungus gardens, and the ants must fight off other types of fungus and bacteria that threaten these gardens. They do this by applying their own form of antibiotics to any newly added plant material. They also have created ventilation systems that cleverly draw in fresh air and vent out carbon dioxide. This system is so efficient that over five million individuals may occupy a single colony.
There are not only farmers in the ant world, but ranchers as well. Their “livestock” are mealy bugs and aphids. These insects suck the sap from plants and then excrete excess sugar which the ants lap up. The ants in return protect their charges from predators and even hide them under leaves during rain. The ants pick up and move their livestock to “fresh pastures”, parts of the plants with more, and/or sweeter, sap. When the ants move they take their livestock with them.
Some ant societies have a more martial flair. They are highly mobile “armies” moving the entire colony on a regular basis, looking for fresh hunting grounds. These “army ants” not only feed themselves, hunting anything they can overpower, but many species of birds make a living following the ants around as well. Insects fleeing the ants are then snapped up by the birds. In fact there is a whole family of antbirds, Thamnophilidae , with over 200 members. There are antwrens, antshrikes, antvireos and the list goes on. Clearly it is a successful strategy to follow around hunting colonies of army ants.
Pushing the edge of the fantastic is the story of various slave raider ants. These ants raid other ant colonies and steal their eggs and pupae. They return to their own nests and tend the captives. When these captives are born, they are so immersed in the chemical cocktail of their captors’ colony that they assume they belong. Some slave raiders have become such specialized warriors that they can no longer take care of themselves. They rely completely on their slaves to gather food and even to feed them. One example from the United States, Polyergus breviceps, won’t even clean up after themselves or feed their queen without ant slaves from the genus Formica.
Colorado’s “monsoon” season provides the backdrop to a tale of intrigue and power. To tell that tale I must return to the citronella Ants. Great thunderstorms erupt in July and August dumping torrential rains. Many animals depend upon these rains, including ants. One July afternoon, out hiking in our neighboring Garden of the Gods Park, I came across small, uneven holes in the dirt. Clustered around the entrance were tiny, exquisitely golden ants. I had never seen anything quite like them. Days later I came back and they were gone.
It would be another year before I had the chance to unravel this little local mystery. This time, as thunderheads again threatened, not only did I rediscover the golden ants, but small black winged ants poured out of the misshapen holes. I then started noticing larger, solitary reddish colored ants running around in the same area. One found a hole and, bypassing the golden and winged black ants, disappeared down it. I took pictures and started sending them off to myrmecologists, ant scientists, hoping someone would have a clue as to what was going on.
Turns out these ants are known as citronella ants, Lasius latipes, (they have an alarm pheromone that smells strongly of citronella). They are completely subterranean except during the monsoon season when the reproductive winged males and larger virgin queens take off for their nuptial flights. The black males die shortly after mating, their role in the story over. The queens’ stories, however, are just beginning. After landing they rub off their wings, and unlike other ant queens, they don’t build their own nest but rather plot a coup.
The queen I observed stealing into the nest was on a mission. Most likely she was from another species of Lasius ant. Wafting her own chemical scent, she would seek to woo the small golden female workers while hunting the resident queen. If successful, she would kill the reigning monarch and take over egg laying duties, her offspring slowly replacing those of the former queen. All the ants will return underground, regardless of the success or failure of the coup attempt, and continue their existence, herding their aphids and scale insects who feed on sap from plant roots. The entire colony and their “livestock” won’t visit the light of day again until the monsoons return again next year.
In our gardens, ants are the great equalizers. By hunting insects that become temporarily more populous, they make sure no one group of insects gets out of hand. Their tunnels aerate soil and allow water to penetrate more easily. They have been around for over 100 million years and have formed complex relationships in the environment, many of these we are still discovering. So should you find ants in the garden, relax, they belong there. If you should find them in the house, remember the words of perhaps the most famous ant scientist, Nobel Prize winner E.O. Wilson. When asked what to do if you find ants in your kitchen, Wilson replied “Be careful of little lives.”
DB Rudin is a freelance writer, teacher and environmental activist. He is currently the Education Coordinator at Venetucci Farm and Pinello Ranch projects of the Pikes Peak Community Foundation. David has been a columnist for Manitou Magazine and, most recently, Greenwoman Magazine. He is an avid birder and also has strong interests in herpetology and entomology. He lives near Garden of the Gods Park with his wife Margaret and their dogs, Gracie and Benny. He can be reached at email@example.com. His blog, A Naturalist’s Journal, can be found here: https://naturethroughtheseasons.wordpress.com/
A Facebook friend’s post this week told how a large honeybee swarm had taken up residence in an empty hive on his property. All on its own! He’d left the hive out all winter, “seasoning it with lemon grass every month,” (rubbing lemon grass into the wood), and the day before saw a scout bee checking it out. The next day—a colony moved in! Free bees!
How incredibly exciting! I thought.
I’ve been dreaming of beekeeping for years here on my city property, but I’ve never made the move from dream to reality. Two neighbors on my block have given it a try. One had a hive for a couple of years, and a new neighbor across the street has a hive, or she did last summer. I’ve taken classes, and one year was thrilled to participate in a swarm capture, but I’ve always been just a little too wrapped up in other projects to take on yet another responsibility. (I would want to do right by the bees, you know!) I do take a lot of pleasure, though, in growing two big city lots full of plants that produce great bee forage flowers: lots of catmint, blue mist spirea, and borage, in addition to flowering trees and shrubs, vegetables, flowers, weeds, etc. We also provide water in a few birdbaths and a pond. The bees love to drink from the lily pads.
And every year I think—hmmm, maybe next year.
This year’s musings were ignited first by the beekeeper, then by Pinterest, which sent me some suggested pins that included honeybee art. That took me to Etsy, and that took me to Wikimedia Commons, my favorite place for copyright-free antique images.
There I found a few more images I hope you’ll enjoy.
Bee well, and remember to love and care for our friends the honeybees!
From How to Keep Bees for Profit, by Anna Botsford Comstock, 1905. I learned that Comstock was a well-known American artist, educator, conservationist, and leader of the nature study movement!
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I guess it’s “nostalgic summer” here on the blog. Again I’m going back in time to share something sweet. I read this on the air some years back at our local NPR affiliate station, KRCC. The museum’s still here and now I want to go back.
I was thrilled to learn this summer that my seven-year-old nephew, Sean, is into bugs. You see, I have two daughters who did not inherit my “creepy crawlie things ‘r’ fun” gene. While we’ve shared a few adventures, my girls generally wince at earwigs, shudder at spiders, and, well, they just don’t get me.
Sean recently brought over his latest acquisition, a pet slug. “I found it under a rock yesterday.”
I was relieved the mollusk was small, alarmed to see it resided in a tin, on a bed of grass. “Let’s get it some lettuce. And mist it,” I said. “They like it cool and wet.”
The slug still looked overly sluggish after our efforts and I made an unfortunate remark, “Sean, I’m afraid he might be visiting slug heaven really soon.”
Sean didn’t take my comment well.
To make amends, I proposed an adventure, “Want to go to a bug museum?”
Within the hour we turned off Hwy. 115 at a 10-foot-tall Hercules beetle. We headed down the dirt road to the May Museum of Natural History, a place I’d been longing to visit for years. Now, finally, I’d found someone to join me!
I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d studied museum and art gallery work in college, even interned at a local history museum, twice, and I knew museums could vary from roadside trailer to Guggenheim. What we found was a charming 1940’s adobe building. Past the gift shop was a large exhibit room filled with display cases holding approximately 8,000 invertebrates, about 1/10th of what is considered to be one of the world’s most outstanding collections. Nothing high tech, no slick design, no interactive games for the kiddies, just glass cases, much like you’d imagine in a Victorian library or a curiosity shop, filled with treasures collected mostly from the tropics. The odd combination of science and antiquities quickened my pulse and made me fantasize about my perfect home library/natural history room. (The fantasy includes a replica of a human skeleton, glass cases with insect specimens, a mineral case, red leather furniture, and twelve-foot walls filled with books, floor to ceiling.)
I didn’t even attempt to stay with Sean. He fluttered randomly about the room, much like one of the tropical insects, saying things like, “Wow, this tarantula eats birds!” “There’s a HUGE fruit bat!” Though excited, I moved in an orderly line, much like an aunt (pun intended) trying to absorb the contents of each case. We saw: Columbian beetles so large that, in flight, they can break street lights and knock down men; giant locusts with rainbow-hued wings; huge Brazilian butterflies in metallic greens and blues; a stick insect 17 inches long; and leaf insects of Borneo and Madagascar that are replicas of the leaves of the trees they rest on. I found myself not in a museum so much as an unusual temple devoted to evolution and beauty! The art before my eyes mocked anything man could ever hope to create—transparent butterflies lovelier than stained glass; gold and silver beetles that would make a Tiffany silversmith weep.
I wanted to hug each and every case.
In the gift shop I asked about the fall closing date, October 1st, and said, “I’ve really got to come back one more time before then.”
“Can I come too?” asked Sean.
I smiled. Boys could be so fun! “Of course.”
Back at the house, we found that the slug had succumbed, another reminder of how man’s efforts at species domination can fail so easily. We gave the slug a burial in the flower garden, saddened, but also solaced by our very own glimpse of Bug Heaven.
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