Fabulous Ant Fact #5

The venom of a Harvester Ant, scientific name, Pogonomyrmex, is twenty times more potent than that of a rattlesnake.

Of course, a harvester ant doesn’t deliver a large quantity of venom, so their bites, while painful, aren’t usually fatal unless administered by a large number of ants at one time. And most harvester ants aren’t particularly aggressive, at least those found in the Florida panhandle aren’t.

I attended my last Olli class at Florida State University for this semester on Thursday morning. There’ll be one more class session of The Parallel Universe of Ants on the 14th, but I’m meeting a group of girlfriends for a long weekend in Nashville, so perhaps I’m done with Fabulous Ant Facts.

The ants have found a place in my heart, though. And regardless of what Olli class I take next semester, the ants will be my first love. Tread lightly where you go, friends, lest you accidentally stomp on one of the coolest critters ever.

Peace, people.

Ant Heaven

(Note: I made the mistake of taking an epic nap after my trip to Ant Heaven and before writing this post; therefore, a great deal of what was learned on the field trip just floated away into nothingness. I used to be so much better at retaining information.)

Normally I’d spend my Saturday morning running around Tallahassee, going to the Farmer’s Market or to estate sales. Today, though, I went on a field trip to a place affectionally dubbed “Ant Heaven” by Dr. Walter Tschinkel, our Olli instructor extraordinaire.

I’m not totally sure where Ant Heaven is, even though I drove my car in a caravan of other Olli participants to the spot. If it were a secret location I’d never be the one to spill the beans.

Soon after our group of a dozen or so arrived at Ant Heaven, Dr. Tschinkel put us to work laying bait trails.

The orange stakes indicate the location of an ant nest, while the pink substance is a mixture of mashed up cookie with a non-toxic pink dye added. Our job was to place the small piles of bait at various distances from the nest and then to observe foraging ants carrying bits of bait back to their respective nests.

Prior to our visit, Dr. Tschinkel had gone to the trouble of raking away much of the detritus (pine needles and leaves) from around several nests so we’d have a better opportunity to watch the ants in action.

Mine is the annoying voice saying, “It might be a carpenter,” which is totally wrong. What it might be is a Harvester ant. I should’ve kept my mouth shut. If I had a penny for all the times that was the case, Bill and Melinda Gates would be borrowing money from me.

As we watched ants foraging for bait Dr. Tschinkel set up the kiln to melt aluminum for casting a nest.

It takes time to heat the aluminum to beyond the melting point, so I wandered around trying not to step on any ants.

This video above is from a Harvester Ant nest. The black bits surrounding the nest, as well as those scattered on top of the nest, are pieces of charcoal. Apparently no one knows why Harvester Ants collect charcoal and mark their nests with it.

One of the critical tools of the professional myrmecologist is a shop vacuum. Seriously. The shop vac is used to clean debris from a nest and even to suction up a large number of ants to take back to the lab for studying.

In the video above, Dr. Tschinkel is using a suction tube to pick up ants as he searches for a fungus garden in the nest of a Northern Fungus Gardening Ant. These ants collect caterpillar droppings and “feed” them to a fungus that the ants tend as nourishment for the super organism that is the colony.

I believe you can see some of the ants suctioned in the picture below; although, these might not be the fungal gardening ants.

Once the aluminum had reached approximately 1,000° C, Dr. Tschinkel began the process of casting.

Now, a lot of work went into this prior to the pouring of aluminum. He had to clean around the nest, (shop vac) and scoop a large amount of sand away from the area. It’s a labor intensive task. Oh, lest any of you worry about loss of ant life, the castings are made from abandoned nests.

This first pour yielded a small casting.

They’re incredible little sculptures.

A second pour produced a larger piece; although, I didn’t get a picture of it for some reason. Both sculptures were sent home with lucky attendees who happened to guess a number Dr. Tschinkel had in mind.

I did get a couple of pieces leftover from previous pours. Generally such pieces are melted for future castings.

One teeny tiny ant (whose name I have forgotten) coats the chambers of its nest with a black seed-like fungus. No one knows why. It’s one of Dr. Tschinkel’s newest research topics, and one of our group members found a nest of the little guys. Dr. Tschinkel excavated one of the chambers and will study it further.

After the excavation we headed back to Tallahassee. I was tired and hungry but not grumpy. After a nice meal at a sushi place I returned to Doright Manor and took a three hour nap!

Ant Heaven was an adventure. I had a great time learning a little bit more about ants, and I’m leaving out incredible stuff here. We’ll blame the nap.

Peace, people!

Fantastic Ant Fact #3

I’m enjoying the Olli class I’m taking at Florida State University more than I could’ve imagined. The class, The Parallel Universe of Ants, taught by Walter R. Tschinkel the author of The Fire Ants, is everything I’d hoped it would be, and more.

For one thing, Dr. Tschinkel has a great sense of humor, and he employs it with endless patience as we laypeople ask basic questions, often the same questions multiple times in one class period. He’s a veritable encyclopedia of ant info. I like the class so much I purchased his book.

It’s at least an inch thick, so it’ll keep me occupied for some time to come.

I know this is what you’re waiting for–FABULOUS ANT FACT #3:

After mating, female fire ants literally break off their wings after returning from the mating flight. That sounds harsh, but at least they don’t perish after mating as their male counterparts do.

Here’s a bonus tidbit that might come in handy at trivia some day. The study of ants is called Myrmecology, and those who study ants are myrmecologists.

I found this video of Dr. Tschinkel’s appearance on CBS Sunday Morning. The segment was filmed at the place he calls Ant Heaven. With any luck I’ll get to visit there in a couple of weeks when our class goes on a field trip!

https://youtu.be/tetDPeC4s2s

I’m no myrmecologist, but I know an ant when I see one.

Fabulous Ant Fact #2

Yesterday was the second of six Olli classes I’m taking at Florida State University on the Parallel Universe of Ants. For those of you unfamiliar with Olli, here’s a link to their website.

http://www.osherfoundation.org/index.php?olli

If you’re fortunate enough to live near a university offering Olli classes, I urge you to get involved. I’ve immersed myself in learning about ants now, and perhaps you can be immersed in some new interest as well.

Fabulous Ant Fact: Fire ants mate 300 feet above the earth; although, no one has actually witnessed the act.

So, how do we know this is the case? Researchers have taken to the air in planes with nets attached. These nets have collected the bodies of male fire ants as high above the earth as 300 feet.

The males fly in mating swarms early in the morning. Females follow later and return after each has mated with a male. The females then lose their wings and attempt to start their own colony. The males, having depleted their store of energy in the form of glycol, die upon returning to land.

I took copious amounts of notes during the lecture, but mostly I said “Oooh” and “Ahhhh!” at appropriate intervals.

Our instructor presented slides of dozens of varieties of ant species. Some look remarkably like aliens, if aliens exist.

Aren’t they beautiful?

Studly Doright thinks this class is ridiculous. I think it’s fantastic. They do say that opposites attract. Hope he hasn’t expended his store of glycol. 😉

Peace, people!

OLLI and a Fabulous Ant Fact

Did you know that in some species of ants, the queen can live to the ripe old age of 30? Workers of those same species live about seven years. It’s good to be queen.

I enjoyed the OLLI class, The Parallel Universe of Ants, yesterday. We learned a bit about ant anatomy and the social structures of colonies, but I’m incredibly thankful there’ll be no tests. Some of this stuff is way over my head.

It figures that in a college town that many in the class would be retired educators. The level of questions asked by my classmates was impressive. Before our next session I’m going to do some heavy duty reading.

The instructor for my class authored this book:

Pretty cool, eh?

I wrote this joke:

What do you call an ant who’s good with numbers? An accountant.

Peace, people.

Venturing into the Unknown

Doright Manor is situated on a small lake in a rural housing development about eight miles outside of Tallahassee, Florida. I live in the woods, and I love it. Studly Doright, my husband of 43 years, and I often joke that there are more trees in our front yard than there were in our respective Texas panhandle hometowns of Dumas and Floydada. Honestly, that’s not much of an exaggeration.

One of the coolest things about living here is our proximity to Florida State University. A 20-minute drive gets us right into the heart of the campus. Of course being the curmudgeonly people we are, we avoid FSU like the plague. If I have an appointment anywhere near the school I plot routes that will avoid busy Tennessee street with its six narrow lanes of crazy college aged drivers, even if taking said route requires me to add an additional 20 minutes to my drive. Today, however, I am purposely venturing onto the FSU campus for OLLI.

One might ask, “Who is OLLI and why is he/she worth risking one’s life for?”

OLLI is an acronym for Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. According to Wikipedia, “Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes offer noncredit courses with no assignments or grades to “seasoned” adults over age 50. Since 2001, philanthropist Bernard Osher has made grants from his foundation to launch OLLI programs at 120 universities and colleges in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

I’ve been aware of OLLI classes for at least a decade. When we lived near the University of Illinois I had friends who took classes through the program there, but I was still working full time. Now that I’m mostly retired I no longer have any excuses. Except–the anxiety of venturing into the unfamiliar territory of Florida State.

Yesterday (Wednesday) I performed a dry run to locate the building in which my first class will be held, even though I initially went to a similarly named building. And, even after locating the right one I never quite figured out where I’d be able to park. Guess who will give herself an hour of extra time to get there today?

You might also wonder what class has intrigued me enough that I am willing to venture out of my comfort zone. It’s one titled “The Parallel Universe of Ants.”

Studly Doright thinks I’ve lost my mind, but who do you think will have the last laugh when our insect friends begin their quest for world domination? Again:

If you don’t hear from me again after today you can blame it all on OLLI, or ants, or you can just make something up that’s suitably dramatic.

Peace, people!