Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Second Annual New Jersey Ant Together

So yesterday was the second annual NJ Ant Together. The title is a play on words; birders have birding so ant people have anting. So now we can just look for ants, together.

I always hesitate to make the event public for fear of someone showing up thinking this would be great for their children to do. It's NOT! This is a hiking/nature walk that lasts the better half of the day in tick and chigger filled fields and forests. Though this year despite walking through waist high grass I barely got any chiggers, and despite finding deer tracks through the woods our total tick count was 3 plus some really pale and young "baby ticks" which I'm not familiar with.

Our first location was Prospertown Lake, the parking lot of which is located down the street from Six Flags Great Adventure. The cool breeze over the lake, and cloudy over cast kept what should have been 95F degree weather feeling more like it was 80 outside. (There are a number of SPF and Bug Repellents that have anti sweat additives to them.)

Upon walking around we were treated stands of Prickly Pear, a type of cactus that's found throughout the United States.

There was also some type of creeping morning glory that I thought was neat.

As luck would have it one of the first ants we found was one I've been looking for for the past five years or so.

Trachymyrmex septentrionalis, a North American fungus growing ant.

These ants forage for fallen leaf litter and flower petals as well as the frass to caterpillars, grass hoppers and other plant chewing insects to fertilize their underground fungus gardens.

Not far away I found one such fertilizer factory nibbling on some Virginia Creeper. This turns into a Sphinx Moth of some sort.

When we spooked him I though it was funny how he sucked his head in to look like an ass, and made sure to show off the fake eye spot at his rear.

Unfortunately most colonies we found were inactive. But once we found one still digging, it became apparent that they were locally abundant wherever there was sand.

Aphaenogaster treatae colonies were abundant along the forest edge. This is one of the largest Aphaenogaster species in the region. They're just shy of being the same size as Formica pallidefulva, a common lawn species. 


This darker Formica threw me off at first. To get them to be more active we gave them a cricket.


I believe this is actually a darker color form of Formica incerta, which can also look identical to Formica pallidefulva. I'm so used to seeing these two species as the same color, that I found it odd that one would be different looking in another environment but not the other. Ignoring color, these two species differ in the amount of hairs on the mesosoma, queen number, and general colony size. 


Just in the forest we located a different species of Formica, this time something in the sanguinea group, which are slave making ants of other Formica species such as the two already mentioned. 

We weren't actually sure what we were witnessing. The colony appeared to be transporting cocoons to another location some 100 yards away; which we thought to be an outrageous distance for an ant line to travel. They were either moving the nest, or conducting a raid on one of their host species which we were unable to see. 


Before leaving that location, I found a population of Asclepias incarnata ssp. pulchra. Basically this is a variety of Swamp Milkweed that has hair all over the stem and leaves. The flowers are also a delightful shade of pink. 


Next we went to Turkey Swamp Park to revisit the mounds of Formica exsectoides. Getting there requires you to walk through two great big open fields that are mowed for acres and acres. The second field has a very small patch of land that's not mowed at all. And I can't help but view this as a huge waste of space. One field... okay I get it, but to have two of them and only feature a little bit of ... I can't even call it a meadow. I think their lawn mower just ran out of gas. They could install a meadow garden here and offer path ways through sweeping drifts of native grasses and wildflowers. 


There were stands of Common Milkweed there but no Monarch butterflies at all. Other milkweed using insects such as this Four Eyed Beetle were making use of the milkweed but Monarchs seem to be in short supply this year. 

We came across an ant that I'd never seen before. The sensation didn't really strike me until I went to save them onto my computer and I didn't even know the genus, or what to call them.

These are Dolichoderus plagiatus, which I found out later after having them ID'd. 



Here I am standing on a Formica exsectoides mound. It's a little deceptive how high it actually is. The lighter colored tops of them are this year's excavated soil. There is then a lower layer that's a more gradual incline outward. And then an even more gradual slope around that from where the ants have tracked dirt and such around. Behind the mound in the back it's about 3' to the forest floor, whereas looking at it this way they seem shorter.


This species is very aggressive. Mobs of alert workers gathered just about everywhere that we stepped. As I took pictures and recorded them, they started attacking my shoes and climbing up my legs. 


You have to be very good at hiding to live around ants like this, such as this caterpillar that blends in with a stick. 


As we got away from the colonies, roughly ten minutes of walking, we finally started to see other ants. Camponotus chromaiodes, which typically dominates forests is pushed off to the sides and occurs in places where Formica exsectoides doesn't inhabit. 

 A C. chromaiodes worker tending aphids. I actually thought the aphids were being tended by Crematogaster at first then I realized that wasn't the case. It's just some of the aphids are really dark and shiny like a Crematogaster's gaster (abdomen).


Damaged trees oozed sap and were attracting different types of ants as well as these sap beetles. 


At a third location there were stands of Clethra alnifolia in flower. This is an amazingly fragrant plant that bustles with pollinators. 


I also located a second population of the Hairy Swamp Milkweed.


Courting pairs of Spice Bush Swallowtails fluttered about them all.


This last location was a man made lake to support the county water supply. But in its construction they'd flooded much of the adjacent forest, creating a swamp of dead trees.

2 comments:

  1. Congratulations on the Trachymyrmex septentrionalis, although you have a number of cool finds.

    I like how you captured the swallowtails. We have pipevine swallowtails here with a similar behavior.

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  2. Fungus Ants! Great report and great pictures.

    ReplyDelete