Hubbard Fellowship Blog: Ant Swarm (and Lunch)

This post was written by Evan Barrientos, one of our Hubbard Fellows.  Evan is a talented writer and photographer and I encourage you to check out his personal blog. If you would like to see more of his photographs, you can follow him on Facebook.

Don’t worry, I didn’t eat a swarm of ants. But late last September while I was harvesting seeds I did notice enormous clouds of small flying insects swarming above the prairie. The swarms were constantly shifting shape but they were roughly the size of small cars slowly floating across the land. Intrigued, and slightly mesmerized, I walked directly beneath one.

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Closer up I could see that the mystery insects had very narrow waists, which suggested that they might be in the order Hymenoptera (ants, bees, and wasps). Their brown color made me think they might be flying ants.

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Then I began to notice several individuals crawling in the grass below the swarm. Some were caught in spider silk; not complete webs, but loose strands of silk. Looking around, I realized that there were dozens of silk strands scattered among the grasstops of the prairie. As I knelt to photograph one ensnared ant, I saw a small jumping spider stalking another. The spider crept up, grabbed the ant, and carried him away for lunch. Were these silk strands deliberate traps set by the jumping spiders or were they just remnants of ballooning juvenile spiders that happened to catch the ants? I still don’t know.

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Later, I sent the photo below to James Trager, an ant expert, and learned that these were in fact flying ants, Myrmica americana to be specific. It still AMAZES me that there are people who can identify insect species  from just one photo!  He explained that there are actually three different species that currently are all called M. americana because two have not been officially named yet. The unnamed species I encountered is very common, which shows how much we still have to learn about even the insects in our backyards.

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Not only did Trager know the species’ name, but also the explanation for their hypnotic swarming behavior. When it’s time for M. americana to reproduce,  winged males swarm together, forming what’s called a lek.  Reproductive females are drawn to the spectacle and watch from the leaves below. Males will periodically descend from the swarm to crawl around in search of females to mate with (or get snagged by spiders). If a male is lucky enough to avoid the predators below, he may find a female to copulate with. But the challenge doesn’t end there. Once a male begins copulating, dozens of other males will often swoop in and try to do the same, forming what’s called a “mating ball.” After the whole fiesta has ended, the female pulls out her wings (so that she can convert her wing muscle into food to feed her offspring via glandular secretions) and walks away in search of a place to start her own colony.

Finally, here’s a video of the lek, first at full speed, then in half-speed slow motion.

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About Evan Barrientos

Evan is the monitoring and outreach assistant for the The Nature Conservancy in southwest Oregon. He has a passion for communicating ecological restoration and conservation through photography, videography, and blogging.
This entry was posted in Hubbard Fellowship, Prairie Insects and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Hubbard Fellowship Blog: Ant Swarm (and Lunch)

  1. juliecache says:

    wow! love that you were able to experience this and share with us. will share this post.

  2. Hi, I don’t see the video link. Suzanne

    From: The Prairie Ecologist To: isooz@yahoo.com Sent: Wednesday, January 6, 2016 11:23 AM Subject: [New post] Hubbard Fellowship Blog: Ant Swarm (and Lunch) #yiv0737952544 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv0737952544 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv0737952544 a.yiv0737952544primaryactionlink:link, #yiv0737952544 a.yiv0737952544primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv0737952544 a.yiv0737952544primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv0737952544 a.yiv0737952544primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv0737952544 WordPress.com | Evan Barrientos posted: “This post was written by Evan Barrientos, one of our Hubbard Fellows.  Evan is a talented writer and photographer and I encourage you to check out his personal blog. If you would like to see more of his photographs, you can follow him on Facebook.Do” | |

  3. Very interesting and entertaining story! Thanks for sharing your experience and research. And great photos too :-).

  4. James McGee says:

    I’m sure glad I’m not a female Myrmica americana. On second thought, I glad I’m not a Myrmica americana at all.

  5. James C. Trager says:

    Hi Evan – Good to see this posted after our work on ID-ing the ant.
    One little thing, the female breaks off her wings near the base, rather than “pulling them out”. Sometimes the tear is uneven and the young queen lives on, for a while at least, with a little shred of the wing membrane.

  6. Troy Mullens says:

    Enjoyed this a lot.

  7. Jonathan Knudsen says:

    Interesting post! The jumping spider belongs to the genus Phidippus, most likely Phidippus audax, a commonly occurring species in Nebraska. The green metallic chelicerae is a dead giveaway for Phidippus. Another possible explanation for the strands of silk left behind, jumping spiders set drag lines as they traverse their environment to act as safety lines, much like climbers have belay lines. But it could just as easily have been remnants of ballooning juveniles.

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