Photo credit: Alexander Wild
Work by Benoit Guenard, Eleanor Rice and others has revealed this ant to now be among the most common ant species in large parts of North Carolina and South Carolina. Where it is abundant, it takes over. Native ants become rare. Seed dispersal of some native plants slows. It is a bad, bad ant — though because it is alive it is, like all species, also fascinating and mysterious. If you put out good for it, delicacies like dead roaches, it does not lay trail pheromones to them. Instead the worker who finds the food runs back to her nest, picks up a sister and drags that sister to the food, “HERE it is, thump.”
All of this is known if not well appreciated. Also known is that this ant stings. It stings hard enough to make brave graduate students wince and less brave graduate students switch to working on fruit flies. Many folks appear to be allergic to these stings—the risk of anaphylactic shock from stings by the Asian needle ant is much higher than from stings of, say, honeybees. Fortunately, the Asian needle ant is mostly peaceful. On its six, long legs it walks softly but carries a big sting.
Now the news. As part of the School of Ants project in which citizens–be they ant professionals, engineers, teachers, or kids—thousands of people have now sampled the ants in their yards (schoolofants.org). Many of the ants these folks have found are common but poorly known native species. Others are rarer native species2. Others still are invasive species, including the Asian needle ant. In the first year of sampling, all of the records we saw for the Asian needle ant were from places we already knew it to occur (mostly North Carolina); then came the shipments.
When people send us ants they arrive in a box in the Department of Biology at North Carolina State University or a similar box at the University of Florida (where the director of the project, Andrea Lucky, now works). There the ants wait until one of our diligent ant sorters takes them up to the lab. In the lab, the ants are glued onto tiny triangles of paper that are put onto pins. Labels are then attached to the pins indicating where the ants were found. Finally, the ants are identified by experts. We pay systematists—those great and under-appreciated namers and classifiers of life—to identify the specimens, because it is hard, skillful work and we want the identifications to be right.
The whole process takes a great deal of time, patience and comfort with delayed gratification like the kind that came in an email last week. It was an email from one our ant identification experts, Alex Wild, indicating that the Asian needle ant had been found by amateur scientists in Wisconsin. Separate emails from experts for other regions revealed it had also been found in Washington and Manhattan. Without being noticed, the Asian needle ant appears to have arrived in many disparate regions of North America. The Asian needle ant might be taking over America. AAAAAH! Now, back to the delayed gratification.