Appreciating insects: a local field guide to ants

Photo by Gary Alpert
Photo by Gary Alpert
Workers of one of the so-called Lady Gaga ants (Pyramica pergandei) situate larvae in their nest.

Binocular-wielding birders all have their bird-watching bibles of choice: the illustrated guides that help distinguish one warbler from another or confirm that it’s really an olive-sided fly catcher perched on a high branch. Now, a group of New England biologists and ecologists have put together a detailed field guide for those who prefer to train their attention on the ground, instead: helping to distinguish the segmented bodies, toothed mandibles, and stinger positionings of local ants.

As insects go, ants do seem to have a hold on the imagination—the subject of movies that range from H.G. Wells’ 1905 “Empire of the Ants” to the relatively recent animated film “Antz,” the authors point out. I vividly remember when a science teacher in middle school showed the campy, alarmist science fiction film, “Them!” chronicling the reign of terror of a colony of ants exposed to radiation.

But why do these tiny, industrious insects capture our imagination in the first place? And what can we learn from the ones in our backyard? Aaron Ellison, a senior research fellow at the Harvard Forest and one of the authors of the book, answered a few questions about why he wrote the book, and how it might be used by backyard antwatchers and even Lady Gaga.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Q: A field guide to ants of New England. Why?

A: Ants are everywhere, and everyone sees them—often coming out of walls or beams or running over the kitchen counter. But there’s a lot more diversity to ants than just carpenter ants and sugar ants, and we wanted to help people appreciate that diversity and take a little time to look more closely at the world under their feet.

Indeed, the Field Guide to the Ants of New England is designed like a bird guide, and can be used in exactly the same way. Just use a 10x or 15x hand-lens instead of binoculars. ... The diversity of ants is manageable—there are about as many ant species in New England (132) as there are species of ferns, dragonflies, or breeding birds. The book needs to be carry-able—a species-level field guide to all of the insects of New England would probably weigh a few hundred pounds.

Q: Do you have a favorite species, and why?

A: My personal favorite is our bog ant, Myrmica lobifrons, because it got me into studying ants. Another favorite is the Winter Ant, or Eastern Honeypot Ant, Prenolepis imparis, which is usually the first out of hiding in the spring and the last to disappear in the fall. Workers collect sugars and nectars (look for it on Peony buds in spring) and store the sugars in their distended abdomen until their nest mates need food.

Some of the most beautiful ants are what we affectionately call the Lady Gaga ants, in the genus Pyramica—we have three species in New England. They all have weirdly-shaped triangular heads, filmy skirts around their abdomens, and eat springtails (the most common springtails we see are the black “snow-fleas” that appear on melting snowdrifts in January and February). We continue to hope that Lady Gaga will make a Pyramica outfit for an upcoming concert.

Q: When, how, and why did you first get interested in ants?

A: For me, it’s because ants are the main prey of the carnivorous pitcher plants that I’ve been doing research on since the mid-1990s. I simply wanted to know what kind of ants they were eating. That spawned a lot of other questions, and research grants to answer them, and we soon realized that there was no accessible identification guide for ants for anyone—from newbies to professionals. So we wrote the book we wished we’d had when we started this research 15 years ago.

Q: What are the best places and techniques to look for ants locally?

A: Ants are everywhere, and so you can look for ants anywhere. If you stand in any piece of your front lawn, in a patch of woods or in a farm field, there is probably an ant nest somewhere within three feet of you. Under logs, under rocks, in the leaf-litter, inside hollowed-out twigs or acorns, or in the soil. One of our most common ants is the Pavement Ant, which makes little anthills in the cracks in the sidewalks.

In New England, it’s best to look for ants when it’s warm out—late spring, summer, and early fall. In the winter, they move deep underground to avoid freezing.

Collecting tools are simple—fingers work best for snagging workers out foraging for food. Or go out and have a picnic (or put some cookie crumbs on a white card) and wait for the ants to come to you. A hand lens or a small magnifying insect box lets you look at an ant up close and personal.

Q: Did you discover any new species while writing this book?

A: Not really, although there are many species we illustrate in the book that don’t yet have formal (scientific) names. There aren’t enough ant taxonomists to deal with all the backlog of unnamed species—maybe this book will encourage someone to learn more about ants and become a “myrmecologist” (a “student of ants”). At the same time, we are working on untangling the systematics of one group of ants we have here, in the Aphaenogaster rudis complex. This “species” disperses seeds of many of our favorite woodland flowers—Trillium, bloodroot, gay-wings, wild ginger—but will probably turn out to be two or even three different species. There’s a lot still to be learned about biodiversity right here in New England!

Ellison will be giving a lecture and signing copies of the field guide at the Harvard Museum of Natural History on Thursday, Nov. 29 at 6 p.m. Other signings are scheduled for December 2, 1:30 p.m. at New England Wild Flower Society’s Garden in the Woods in Framingham, and December 3, 6:30pm at the Harvard Forest Fisher Museum in Petersham.