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.

Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Wasp Slumber Party

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.
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I was enjoying a sunset walk in the prairie when I stumbled upon an alarming sight: several dozen large wasps covering a clump of grass. They had menacing eyes and dagger-like stingers, but I wanted photos of this new species so I could identify and learn more about them. Cautiously edging closer and closer to the wriggling mass of black and yellow, I got my photos and escaped unscathed. Thanks to these photos I was later able to identify these wasps to the Myzinum genus, and by doing so learned that there was absolutely nothing dangerous about them.

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After doing some research, it turns out that these wasps weren’t forming a murderous attack squad; they were  just having a big ‘ol slumber party. Male Myzinum wasps are known to sleep together in large groups such as this, although no one seems to know why. Furthermore, males don’t even have stingers, just curved spines that seem to only serve as intimidation. During they day they feed on a vegetarian diet of nectar and look for females to mate with. The females, however, are a little less gentle.

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Females actually have functional stingers and they’re bigger, built for digging underground in search of scarab beetle larvae.  Like the last wasps I wrote about, Myzinum larvae are parasitoids, parasites that kill their hosts. When a female Myzinium finds a scarab beetle larva, she paralyzes it with neurotoxins injected from her stinger lays a single egg on it. After hatching, the wasp larva devours its host like a sci-fi alien.

So the next time you find a swarm of scary-looking wasps, instead of grabbing the can of wasp spray, consider that they might just be harmless insects that pollinate your flowers and eat the beetles that damage your flowers and lawn.

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