Mark Moffett Visits Arizona

For those of you who didn’t get to see Mark Moffett’s presentation last evening at the Mesa Arts Center, here is an interview from our local radio station KJZZ. (There’s a gray square button in the upper left hand corner of the box below that turns off the audio.)

Dr. Moffett has a book coming out soon. Given his abilities as a photographer, I can’t wait to see it.

Little Black Ant, Monomorium minimum

We have been inspired by books lately. In the last post, our inspiration was an adult-level book about katydids. Today it is the children’s picture book  Little Black Ant on Park Street by Janet Halfmann and Illustrated by Kathleen Rietz. The book is the next installment in the excellent Smithsonian’s Backyard series. I reviewed the book at my Wrapped in Foil blog and putting up related hands on activities for children on my Growing With Science blog, but here I’d like to take a look at the biology of the species.

The little black ant, Monomorium minimum, is a relatively tiny species, native to North America.

Photograph by April Nobile / © / CC-BY-SA-3.0

The workers are black, uniform in size and only about 1/16th of an inch long (1.5 mm). The petiole has two segments.

Monomorium minimum belongs to the tribe Solenopsdini. The workers have antennae with a three-segmented club. Their fire ant relatives have a two-segmented club.

Photograph by April Nobile / © / CC-BY-SA-3.0

(Ant head and profile from wikimedia)

Unlike the stereotypical ant colonies with only one queen, colonies of little black ants often contain multiple queens.

Monomorium minimum workers feed on honeydew, and scavenge dead insects and other arthropods, usually during the warmest part of the day. When foragers find a suitable item, they recruit nest mates by releasing a pheromone. Once recruited, groups of workers cut up larger items or cart away smaller ones.

As described in the book, when workers of M. minimum run into other ant species that scavenge dead arthropods, the minimum workers raise their gasters, vibrate and release poison gland secretions to chase away any rival ants. This behavior is called “gaster flagging.”

Here’s a short video of gaster flagging in another species.

For a little ant, they pack a big punch. Monomorium minimum colonies can invade imported fire ant, Solenopsis invicta, colonies and take over.

Given that these little ants are so interesting and relatively widespread and common, I’m surprised how little information I was able to find on them. Perhaps this new children’s book will spark some scientific inquiry by the next generation of myrmecologists.

Eldridge S. Adams and James F. A. Traniello. 1981. Chemical interference competition by Monomorium minimum (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). Oecologia. Volume 51, Number 2 / January, 1981. pdf available

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Ants: No Longer the Strong Silent Types

I’ve just been reading a book on katydids, which are insects renowned for their ability to sing. What about ants? Are they the strong silent types?

It turns out that ants can make plenty of music. They can squeak, drum and rattle as well. There is nothing quiet about ants. As Dr. Francesca Barbero of the University of Turin says,  “Sound in information exchange within ant colonies has been greatly underestimated.”


Detail of the pars stridens (in yellow) on the forth abdominal tergite in a Pachycondyla villosa worker (Scanning Electron Micrograph, Roberto Keller/AMNH)

Ants with underground nests occasionally get buried when a tunnel collapses. Scientists have shown trapped ants of certain species can make sounds by rubbing sections of their rear section or gaster together. On one segment of the gaster there is a patch of tiny ridges like a file. On the petiole is a curved ridge called a scraper. The ant produces a squeaking sound when she rubs them together, which known as stridulation. You can produce a sound in a similar way by rubbing a craft stick across a comb. When other workers detect the sound, they rush to help dig out the trapped ant(s).

Researchers have been able to record sounds from individual ants. The sounds are in the audible range for humans and can be heard distinctly when amplified. Listen to the sounds of a fire ant stridulating at Stridulation Sounds of Black Fire Ants by Dr. Robert Hickling. (The link is broken, so I found some more recordings -later post).

Stridulation has other functions as well. Male and female harvester ants sing to one another as they take off on their mating flights. Mated females also stridulate to signal to pursuing males that they are no longer interested. In other species, foragers may stridulate when they find food to attract help, although they often release pheromones as well.

Leafcutter ants are known to stridulate while cutting pieces of leaf. It appears the noise the cutting ants make attracts other ants to come take the pieces of leaf to carry them back to the nest. Some ant scientists have suggested that the vibrations improve the ants’ ability to cut smoothly through the leaf. Leafcutter ants also produce sounds while building their nests in the soil.

Example video of Acromyrmex ant stridulating

Some other insect species associated with ants also stridulate to attract the ants’ attention. The caterpillars of the beautiful Imperial blue butterfly have “teeth” on their abdomen, which they scrape against a series of grooves to produce grunts and hisses. They can also make a drumming sound. All these different calls seem to be used for different situations, but not all the details are clear yet. What is known is when scientists glued up the noise-producing organs with shellac, the ants took longer to find the caterpillars and spent less time with them than with the ones who had not been silenced.

As I mentioned in the post about blue butterflies, Rebel’s large blue (Maculinea rebeli) larvae have recently been shown to mimic the sounds produced by the queen ants of their hosts to elicit food, care and even rescues, at the expense of the colony’s own offspring. Go to “Caterpillar noise tricks ants into service” article at Science News to actually hear the sounds the caterpillars and ants make. Edit:  Hear the audio links here at Science.

I studied carpenter ants, and whenever I opened a nest, I could hear the ants react. The workers strike their mandibles and gasters on the surface of the tunnels in their wooden nest to create a drumming sound. Ants deeper in the nest rush to the site of the disturbance and assist their sisters with defending the nest.

The rattle ants of Australia also tap their gasters when they encounter an enemy intruder, such as a bird feasting on their nestmates. They live in leaf nests high in trees. The leaves may be slightly dry and the tapping produces an audible rattling sound that gives these ants their name.

Rattan ants of Asia live in thorny rattan vines. When an intruder gets too near their nest the ants hit their mandibles against the stem of the plant. Because they hit in a synchronized way, the sound pulses. (I was interested to learn that some katydids also drum or vibrate the plants, especially species that stay hidden deep in foliage. )

Where are the ants’ ears? No one knows for absolutely sure how it all works. Some ants have ways to detect surface vibrations in their legs. It is also likely that certain ants use hair-like sensors in the tips of their antennae. When the hairs are displaced the ants detect signals that are called nearfield. Those are signals from sources that are extremely close. The ants remain completely unaware of sounds produced by far objects, like us shouting at them for example.

In any case, as our human sound equipment becomes refined, I’m sure we will be hearing more from ants.

More sound recordings:

Take a look at how ants respond to a microphone and listen to a recoding by by Adriano Zanni.

Bug Bytes, the USDA Sound library of Richard Mankin, has a number of ant recordings.


Barbero, F., J.A. Thomas, S. Bonelli, E. Balletto, and K. Schönrogge. 2009. Queen Ants Make Distinctive Sounds That Are Mimicked by a Butterfly Social Parasite. Science 323 (5915) 782.

Donato A. Grasso,  Marco Priano,  Gianni Pavan,  Alessandra Mori,  Francesco Le Moli. 2000. Stridulation in four species of Messor ants (Hymenoptera, Formicidae). Italian Journal of Zoology, Volume 67, Issue 3: 281 – 283

Judson, Olivia. 2009. Operator? Can You Put Me Through to Ant Nest 251? New York Times – gives an historical perspective of some of the earlier works on ant sound communication.

Markl, H. 1965. Stridulation in Leaf-Cutting Ants. Science 149 (3690), 1392-1393.

Tautz, J., F. Roces, B. Hölldobler. 1995. Use of a Sound-Based Vibratome by Leaf-Cutting Ants. Science 267 (5194), 84.

Ant Books to Share with Kids

Do you know some children who are interested in ants? We had a list of books for adults earlier this week, so now it is time for ant books for kids.

Allen, J. and T. Humphries. (2002). Are you an ant? Backyard Books. New York: Kingfisher Publications.
The Are you a…? books are always wonderful because the author brings the child into the story by comparing the insects, in this case ants, to humans. You feel like you are in an ant colony.

Cole, J. and B. Degen (illus.) (1996). The magic school bus gets ants in its pants: A book about ants. New York: Scholastic, Inc.
This imaginative book is filled with facts about ants and very bad puns!

Dorros, A. (1988). Ant cities. Let’s Read and Find Out Science Books. New York: HarperCollins.
Probably one of the more informative books about ants for this age group.

Micucci, C. (2003). The life and times of the ant. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
An excellent introduction to ants, with cartoon illustrations.

Rodriguez, A. M. (2009). Secret of the plant-killing ants… and more. Berkley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc.
An encapsulation of current research by actual myrmecologists (ant scientists), including Nigel Franks and Deborah Gordon.

Climo, S. and F.X. Mora (illus.). (1995). The little red ant and the great big crumb: A Mexican fable. New York: Clarion Books.
In this lively tale, the ant finds out more about its world.

Hepworth, C. (1992). Antics: An alphabet of ants. New York: Paperstar/Putnam and Grosset group.
If you liked the puns in the Magic School House book, you’ll love these. Ant puns galore.

Hoose, P. and H. Hoose. (1998). Hey, little ant. Berkeley, CA: Tricycle Press.
Tale about a boy deciding whether or not to step on an ant. Gives the ant’s point of view.

Porte, B.A. and A. Cannon (illus.). (2000). Ma Jiang and the orange ants. New York: Orchard Books.
The orange ants in this story are named for the fact they are used to protect orange trees from pests. Ma Jiang and her family experience turbulent times in this historical account.

Van Allsbury, C. (1988). Two bad ants. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
Two ants have a wild adventure in a kitchen, told from the perspective of the small and confused ants. The illustrations are incredible.

For more information, the Kansas School Naturalist has an extensive list of books about ants for children.

(For information about my affiliation with Amazon, please click the financial disclosure button in the header of the blog).