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The Unexpected World Of Ants

winnow ant
Alex Wild
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Ants have a wide range of personality traits, according to researcher Eleanor Spicer Rice

According to Eleanor Spicer Rice, ants have a range of personalities, from team player to charismatic. What she will not call them, however, are pests. 

Spicer Rice is a myrmecologist, an entomologist specializing in ants, and the author of the new book “Dr. Eleanor’s Book of Common Ants” (University of Chicago Press/ 2017). In her writing she explores the common indoor and outdoor ants in North Carolina and connects their unique behaviors to the greater ecological system. While some ants plant seeds and help sustain up to half of the herbaceous plants in our forests, others keep the pest population in check.

Host Frank Stasio speaks with Spicer Rice about the surprising world of ants.

Eleanor’s Five Unexpected Facts About Ants

1. Knocks on the head and vomit are just alternative ways of communicating

"When they meet each other on the trail, if these are trailing ants, then they will do what they call trophallaxis, which is a way that they talk to each other. So one coming from the nest will tap the other one on the head, and the other one will throw up a little bit of the food into its mouth. And if she thinks it tastes good, she'll keep getting it. And as she goes, she'll lay down more trail pheromone. So the trails will get stronger and stronger and the highway will start to happen."

2. Ants often give fair warning before they bite

"A lot of ants do little dances to scare each other away. They'll wave their little abdomens in the air, and they'll wave pheromones around. They'll try to make themselves look big. They have all these ritualistic behaviors. In fact fire ants, if you've actually watched a fire ant come after you before it started to sting you, it does all this crazy stuff. It'll open its mandibles. You get a lot of warning shots from fire ants ... They stomp around. They wave their little stingers in the air, and then they bite you."

3. Some ants farm their own insect livestock

"Aphids are really cute. They're like fat, little chicken nuggets of the insect world. So [ants will] come up. And then when they need meat to make babies – they need protein, ants do, to make their own babies – if they need it they'll go, and they'll pick one off just like slaughtering a cattle ... Some will herd them back into their nest at night."

4. Ants are the architects of our forests

"In the forest there are all kinds of ants doing things, but my favorite one is called the winnow ant. The winnow ant has very long legs, and you can watch her. She looks like she walks on her tiptoes everywhere, and she likes to pick up seeds of herbaceous plants. And these plants produce this coating on the seed called an elaiosome. It has lipids and proteins in it that the ants need to feed to their babies. When they smell that they go nuts. They have to have it. So they grab the seed, and they eat off that elaiosome. And then they take the seed, and they'll either throw it away in their trash pile – because ants are very neat, they have a little garbage pile which has a lot of nutrients in it because it has decaying bugs and bug poop and stuff – or they'll put it under the soil in their nest. And so they are planting these seeds. And they found that if you take the ants out the forest, the wildflower and herbaceous plant abundance and diversity can decrease by as much as 50 percent."

5. The much-demonized carpenter ant actually helps point out problems in your house

"The carpenter ant is not going to move into your house unless there's another problem. Say you've got a leak of something, or say you have a termite problem, they come in, and they gobble em up. Carpenter ants aren't the problem. They're indicating to you that you have another problem in your house ... They want rotting wood. They don't want to do damage to your house. They're just trying to make a living. So if somebody tells me that they have carpenter ants, I always ask them, “Where's your leak?” Because something's going on. And I've never had anybody not find a leak.”

 
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Laura Pellicer is a digital reporter with WUNC’s small but intrepid digital news team. She's currently filling in as the station's digital news editor.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.