Monday, January 2, 2017

2017 Project Goals

Due to setbacks this past year I wasn't quite able to get out any new ant or bee related videos, at least not of a decent length. I have footage but it's not really enough to call an episode and barely enough to call a segment of something bigger. So for this up coming year I hope to get more footage on a variety of topics to flesh out these segments.

A Video of Wildflowers
I grow a number of these in my yard and they're beautiful though my yard isn't the prettiest setting for a video, hence a lot of my macro heavy photos of them. I'll also likely be visiting the Mt. Cuba Center for more material on this. I may even title the video Wildflowers of the Mt. Cuba Center because that place has been nothing but brilliant inspiration.

Another thing I'd love to do one year is set out baits at the Mt. Cuba Center to see what species of ants they have in the woodland gardens. They are technically gardens but mostly planted as a woodland setting in sweeps to look somewhat natural. So it's not really simulating a garden but also not really simulating nature as we'd find it; it's something all its own in a lot of places. So I think that would be neat do a quick survey of. (I doubt they'd let me chop into logs and things for the more cryptic hunting species but these don't have much to do with "living" plants anyway.) 

More Myrmecochory updates.
My wildflowers has been flourishing the past couple of years with small patches of it growing to look slightly Mt. Cuba-esque. Several new plants have started to sprout as a result of ants planting the seeds. It will only truly be rewarding for me when some of these plants make it to a flowering age, such as the very young Trilliums that have started coming up but we're still a few years off from that. 

Exploring A Rotting Stump.
Almost a decade ago we had a Norway Maple chopped down and reduced to a waste high stump. It's now teaming with life including some rather hard to find ant species. I'd love to film more of this and do a video about it to show you all.

Lastly over this past year I started walking my dog at a different time of day. And I found out that just by doing that I was finding all sorts of ant species having nuptial flights, often with queen ants and males landing directly on me. One thing about the hobby a lot of people don't seem to get is just how easy it can be to find a queen ant. I'll admit though it does take some devotion. I might get a new point and shoot camera just for this task.

Anyway those are my 2017 goals. I hope I'm able to bring them all of them to life in the coming year.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

I Survived 2016

Well this has probably been the worst year in recent memory.

On A Personal Level:
My grandfather passed away over the summer and I found myself saying things I never thought I would have. Things like "I don't want to stay for the whole funeral. I was there when they pulled the plug on him on that's more than several of my cousins can say." To put that into context I was just going to pay my respects to my grandmother and graciously then leave. Instead what happened was I was lined up with other family members and had to shake hands over three-hundred friends of the family including a couple dozen servicemen and fire fighters. To enter the parking lot you had to drive under two ladder truck with the American flag hanging between them. There were two chaplains who each had something to say, neither wishing to graciously step down as both had been tremendous friends with my grandfather. The only odd moment came when it was time for two military personnel to preform the flag ceremony. They were a man of color and a women which was presumable intentional, though that wasn't the odd part. He'd been cremated so there was no casket for the flag to be laid upon before hand, thus it was already folded... so a room of 300 plus people watched two military personal unfold a flag, then fold it back up again. 

At the reception I had to face a grim realization. When I posted the details of my grandfather's funeral on Facebook it received 91 likes and an uncounted number of comments of support and condolences.. of whom only one person attended from my social circle. Oddly enough it was the one person who I made the above statement to. He saved me a seat and stayed with me the whole night. He took pictures of everything and even tried to get some of his friends to stop by. 

On A Political Level:
Hopefully four years from now we'll be able to look back and laugh. You know, like that time the president made fun of cripples and grabbing women inappropriately. Not that Hillary Clinton was any prize. She offered nothing more than what Bernie Sanders wasn't offering in spade. And my friends were personally screwed over by the DNC for supporting Bernie and getting his name on the ballet. WHY they were even invited to Hillary's announcement celebration only to be kicked out by seat fillers simply because they went to use the rest room just shows how stupid political parties can get.

In a nut shell, no matter who the president is, they are virtually powerless to do anything without the Senate and House of Representatives under the control of the same political party. Even if Bernie Sanders had won the Democratic ticket and won the election, I don't believe for one second that he could have done half the stuff he promised he would do. Hillary Clinton may not have been perfect but at least the crap being said about her sounded like something that would happen to a politician.

I don't understand the E-mail controversy and hope not to. I know this sounds odd but I really don't care about the content of her E-mails. The fact that her E-mails were able to be leaked in the first place is the Red Flag that makes her unfit to be president. Whether it was just spam she was receiving or the nuclear launch codes, this shouldn't be getting out there. On the other hand though I was hearing people saying things like "She is directly responsible for the deaths of ...." however many people died. No, that would be like saying anyone who gets hacked is directly funding terrorism.

Anyway the election is over and Donald Trump is president which may or may not have been because Russia hacked the system, or maybe more likely Facebook algorithms keep people trapped inside of social network vacuums. Now that the election is over it's WAY more apparent to me. All the people who were writing those articles to push the buttons of people to get them to click their articles didn't know how to write actual news so they're still harping on the same old issues. I've made it a habit to remove these sources from my Facebook feed. It's really odd turning on CNN and hearing them report on Trump saying something that actually sounded like he'd make a great leader, instead of articles saying what he Tweeted at 4:00am.

Lastly, it was made clear to me that that gun ownership is a religion and I will treat it as such in the future.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Late Summer Anting

For personal reasons this year I decided not to have an official "Ant Together." The short story is that my grandfather unexpectedly passed away during the peak month that we would have had one. I found myself in this odd state of mine where I just wanted to skip everything required of me and not volunteer for certain family obligations... thus it stood to reason that I shouldn't be doing other things either such as holding events.

Though the truth is as much as I like to promote the New Jersey Ant Together as a big annual thing, it's never escaped being a simple hiking trip with like minded individuals. And maybe it should stay as a simple get together in future.

I did manage to get a trip in thanks to my friend Matt coming back for a visit. He's attended every Ant Together I've ever done so it was good to get some in while he was back home. Our hunting ground of choice was the Rancocas Nature Center where we held our first one.

This was not our most productive trip, mostly owing to the fact that I forgot my shovel (Doh!), but we still had fun. Our first visit there five years ago we had come across colonies of Polyergus, Stigmatomma, and Strumigenys which was pretty good for our first time! Polyergus are specialist slave making ants of the common Formica genus, that are only found in certain fields. Stigmatomma are a type of "Dracula Ant" which specializes on hunting down centipedes for food. The term Dracula Ant comes from their habit of feeding on their own larva through non-lethal cutting. Strumigenys are cryptic, often hard to find, specialist on soft bodied arthropods... basically miniature Trap-Jaw Ants. None of which we found on our trip owing to the fact that it was very late in the summer.

Formica incerta, very similar looking to Formica pallidefulva, differing primarily by the amount of facial hair. The two species often live in the same fields together and prefer not so lush lawn or scrub habitats. Colonies tend to be small typically around 2,000 to 10,000 ants. Queen number varies with these two species, I believe because some colonies are in the habit of allowing new queens to return to the nest after mating. The colonies then divide after that. It's likely this behavior came about from the presence of other slave making Formica and Polyergus species, perhaps even becoming more common when these threats are around.

Camponotus pennsylvanicus The Eastern Black Carpenter Ant, is easily identified by its large size, ~8 to 15mm. They are solid black color in color, though sometimes the legs with hue dark brown or red, more so in queens than workers. Also they have large amounts of hair on the gaster (abdomen), that's usually brown or gray in color. Colonies are strictly Monogyne/Oligegyne where they only tolerate one queen at a time; the Oligegyne comes from the fact that occasionally colonies have two egg laying queens in them... this is a temporary situation at best and likely comes from a situation where a new queen was brought back into the nest on accident. The new queen is "safe" as long as she's not in the same satellite nest as the mother queen of the colony. These situations usually resolve themselves each winter when colonies reduce the number of satellite nests retreating into one or two locations.

Crematogaster cf. cerasi. This likely is Crematogaster cerasi from their habit of sometimes building shed-like structures over the aphids and leaf hoppers they tend. Crematogaster species otherwise tend to be difficult to identify because of how similar most of them look and needing to count the number of hairs on parts of the body from multiple workers to get a range. This colony likely only has one queen but grows to be enormous in size. Locally they're known for having extensive foraging trails and satellite nests established basically in any dead wood structure or hollow cavity they can find. Despite this they're not really a structural pest.

The genus Crematogaster is easily identified because their waste segment connects to the upper half of the gaster, where as every other ant genus in the world connects to the lower half, or to both with a wide surface area. Their gaster is also considered "heart-shaped." The reason for this upper connection to the gaster is so they can more easily flick venom onto enemies or "sting" venom in an overhead like action as a scorpion would go to sting. Their stinger is said to be soft and flexible, like a hair so really they're not so much injecting venom as painting it on.

Aphaenogaster is a true genus of scavengers in the forests of the North East. Now that it's late summer the Dog Days Cicada's are dropping like flies and the ants are cashing in. It's been said that ants keep the forest floor clear of dead insects and it's uncommon for a carcass to go more than 5 minutes without being discovered by an ant.

Discovery is one thing though. Dismantling and hauling it away might take a day or two. These were ripping at the soft parts first and eventually managed to remove the legs. I did not stay to watch anything more.

While we didn't come across any slave making Polyergus, we did chance upon a colony of slave making Formica. This is either Formica pergandei or rubicunda. I didn't collect any specimens, so we'll likely never know what they are unless I go back sometime. This doesn't matter much though as both species tend to live exactly the same way. F. pergandei has 1 - 4 hairs under the head, while F. rubicunda always has 4. F. rubicunda is also more in the habit of having dark patches on the head and thorax. There are other slight differences but this is the kind of stuff that taxonomists nit pick about for hard identifications. 

This is a good photo of the waste segment, looking head on, which is the light orange heart-shaped part before the black gaster. But this is also a bad photo of the "clypeal notch" which is the front section on the head between the mandibles. Trust me there is a notch there; it's visible in other photos I took of these ants. Unfortunately none of these were good enough photos I felt worth uploading and showing. I mention the notch because Formica is the largest ant genus in North America and it's the defining characteristic that narrows it down to those two species. 

Members of the Sanguinae group of Formica HAVE to have host ants within the colony to do the work for them. They are obligated slave makers. Other species of Formica found in the Exsecta, Rufa, and Microgyna groups might use host colonies to found new nests, but after that host species are no longer needed. In fact the Formica exesectoides mounds we like to visit in Turkey Swamp Park rarely use host species. They've move beyond the need for them, allowing new queens from their own colony back into the nest to form a massive super colony within the forest.

These do require slaves though and we chanced upon, I believe starting out on a raid. 

They would pull up individuals of their own species out of the nest and then began running along a trail to a host colony I believe to be either Formica fusca or subsericea. They would then run into the nest, grab a cocoon of one of their hosts and bring it back. None of which I got any good photos of :( 

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Late Summer Mt. Cuba Center Visit

I was at the Mt. Cuba Center last weekend for a little late summer photo stroll. Here are a few of the sights I saw.

The round garden perhaps off from the main house is a dazzling array of color now, though perhaps a little busy for some. While it's comprised of mostly nonnative annuals, it serves as a bustling stop for an assortment of butterflies who's host plants are all around some ~650 acres of fairly well kept wilderness and native plant gardens. 

I'm not sure what the purple plant is but it's foliage contrasts well with the brightness of the Lantana in bloom among other flowering plants. Here some skippers flutter about. Among them were an assortment of Swallowtails, Monarchs, and Fritillary Butterflies that proved too quick for me to photograph. 

Elsewhere in a native flower bed the Swallowtails were a bit more cooperative. Here two Tigers sip at an Ironweed, I believe the cultivar is Vernonia angustifolia 'Plum Peachy' which is like 'Iron Butterfly' but about twice as tall. 

Praying Mantises were abound in the meadow garden. Not only were females laying eggs but also in the act of mating... some with more than one partner courting them at the same time. 

Though the woodland was filled with an assortment of Woodland Asters, I found the Richweed, Collinsonia canadensis, to be particularly interesting.

Though common in woodland areas across the eastern United States, it's not something a lot of people stop to look at.

Part of the issues that it's not a more mainstream plant is likely due to the large leaves of the plant, compared to the fairly delicate flower stalks that come above. The flowers are small and not entirely noticeable either. I actually walked past the patch of these plants twice before I even noticed it. It's plants like this where interesting leaves or flower shapes from cultivation would benefit to get it sold and brought into the main nursery trade.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Some Uncommon Ants In My Yard

While trying to photograph Aphaenogaster dispersing Trillium seeds I chanced upon a few unexpected surprises. The only colony I was able to find actively foraging happened to be in an old stump, a former Norway Maple we had had cut down many years ago. To set the scene properly this was in the shade of an Eastern Redbud Tree and the stump is now used as a perch for a Mason Bee box as well as a stone dish we use as a bird's bath. Naturally we flush out the water every day or so to keep the mosquito larva down and the stump has been getting soaked for many years. The result seems to be idea for a surprising amount of ant diversity.

The stump is absolutely teaming with decomposing arthropods. Here an Acorn Ant, Temnothorax curvispinosus, has found one. Small soft bodied creatures such as this, especially ones smaller than the ants themselves make excellent ant food. It's likely several colonies of Acorn Ants are also nesting within the log.

Here a Strumigenys pergandei has also caught something, I believe it's a spring tail. These ants are rarely seen because the only nest in shaded places that are "cold and damp." Cold refers to when they nest in soil, usually under a rotting log. Generally the soil will be cool to the touch, even in summer. They hunt and forage in rotting wood and leaf litter, often where decomposing insects and arthropods are abundant enough to have turned much of the dead plant matter into soil. Supposedly the yellowish structure on their waist segments, as well as the petal-like structures on their head and body are to help camouflage them from prey items.

This is an awful shot of a Proceratium silaceum but they were there too. Even more cryptic than Pyramica, they have a front facing stinger on the end of their gaster (abdomen) so they can sting prey that's in front of them, in tight closed spaces, as opposed to having to turn around. They're worth a google image search to get the idea.

It's nice knowing these uncommon ants can still be found in my yard, because this is the first time in several years that I've seen either in my yard. Now I know where to look!