Category Archives: Ants

The Spider and the Ant

Dear All – having been weighing and counting ants on the Whistling Thorns for some research work related to my PhD. There are a few alates around – these are the winged reproductive forms of ants… Each colony produces many hundreds, even thousands of alates that take off into the sky as part of a synchronised mating flight. Female alates become future queens, they are larger than the males. Male alates only live for the day of the mating flight – they have one chance to mate. They can never return to their colony once they depart. All of them will die within a day of departing on the mating flight…

Here is an illustration of the alates of the three common ant species on the Whistling Thorn trees in East Africa:

Alates - winged queens and males of the Whistling Thorn ants

Alates - winged queens and males of the Whistling Thorn ants (the black bar is for scale - it represents 1 cm or 1o mm)

Most of the them don’t make it and end up as food for birds, other ants and spiders.

I found this Jumping Spider eating a freshly captured young foundress queen…

Jumping Spider with Acacia-ant alate (winged queen)

Jumping Spider with Acacia-ant alate (winged queen)

The spider lives among the ants and dodges them by constantly keeping on the move, occasionally nabbing one of the hapless ants for a snack! Jumping Spiders are ambush predators that use their athletic skills and fantastic vision to capture prey. They have more than two pairs of eyes (in fact 4 pairs in total, with two pairs facing forward that are very well developed…)

How many eyes can you see on the spider?

How many eyes can you see on the spider?

Dirt or Bug?

Dear All, while watching a trail of ants walking up the trunk of a tree I noticed a tiny piece of dirt moving among the ants. At first I thought that it was just a stray bit of bark blown in, but a closer look revealed that it was moving purposefully with the ants. It was so tiny that I couldn’t get photos of it with the ants and had to put it on a sheet of white paper to actually see it…

Is this a speck of dirt or a bug?

Is this a speck of dirt or a bug?

Turning the speck of dirt over reveals that it is indeed an insect wearing a cloak of bits of dirt and bark. Here you can see the legs and body segments more clearly…

'Speck of dirt' turned over to reveal an insect beneath!

'Speck of dirt' turned over to reveal an insect beneath!

Not sure exactly what this bug is or is doing with the ants, but no doubt it is a ‘myrmecophile’ which means an ‘ant-lover’ that lives with the ants and exploits them…

Truly a wonderful disguise!

Truly a wonderful disguise!

Amazing naughty fly!

Dear All

Many greetings – just back in access from a week of fieldwork at Suyian in Laikipia, north of Mt Kenya…

I have been looking at the ant-acacias up here, called Whistling Thorns. The name is especially apt at this time of year as the dry wind sweeps across the plains and plays plaintive music in the hollow thorns that the ants live in.

The Whistling Thorns sing in the dry season

The Whistling Thorns sing in the dry season

While collecting ants and scale insects (more on these fascinating creatures soon), I found myself sheltering from the hot sun and watching the comings and goings of ants on the trees. As it has been really dry, I didn’t expect to see much, but as always Mother Nature had a surprise in store…

The ants were walking up and down the stems and branches. The ants on this tree were Cocktail Ants, and they travel down to the ground to hunt and forage from the tree.

Cocktail Ant walking down a branch

Cocktail Ant walking down a branch

As I watched the ants coming and going, I noticed that one of them was moving in short hops and dancing around at one spot on the trunk. A closer look revealed the most incredible interaction taking place. First of all the errant ant was no ant at all, but a devious little fly that had perched on the trunk of the tree among the ants. It would sidle up to an ant and engage in begging behaviour that included tapping the ants on the head. The hapless ants then proceeded to regurgitate food for the fly. I watched it doing this over and over again (and on other trees later on too).

Fly coaxing ants to feed it!

Fly coaxing ants to feed it!

Ants do share food between each other, so it is this sharing behaviour that the fly is exploiting. While the ants fed the fly, I noticed that it gently rubbed their antennae with its own short stubby antennae to keep them mollified.

Naughty fly tricking another ant

Naughty fly tricking another ant

After tricking about ten ants, the fly then retreated to a shady spot to rest for a much-needed post prandial nap!

Satiated fly resting on the tree's trunk

Satiated fly resting on the tree's trunk

More from the wonderful world of bugs soon. Thanks to everyone for the kind comments!

Jaws!

I recently went on a walk in a forest in Western Kenya and stumbled into these remarkable beasts. Ants may be tiny, but they swarm in large armies and are also armed with some impressive weapons in the form of ‘jaws’ (mandibles) that can inflict a lot of damage quickly…

Among the most impressive jaws among the Kenyan ants are no doubt those belonging to the dreaded Siafu, or Safari Ants, who swarm through forests and similar habitats feasting on anything and everything they can subdue…

Safari ants swarming along a forest path

Safari ants swarming along a forest path

Here are some close-ups of the ‘soldier’ ants jaws who guard the highways that the ants run along through the forest..

Siafu standing guard!

Siafu standing guard!

Remember all these ‘soldiers’, and in fact all of the ants in the swarm are all females, all sisters and all sterile! And they are also all blind – none of the worker Siafu have eyes!

Jaws built like miniature daggers!

Jaws built like miniature daggers!

Foraging nearby were some other interesting ants with impressive jaws too. These were Trapjaw ants who hunt alone, unlike the Siafu. They walk around with their jaws held wide open, and then snap them shut when they meet a suitable prey item. The shutting of their jaws is one of the fastest movements in nature – close to the speed of sound!

Trapjaw ant on the hunt

Trapjaw ant on the hunt

Trapjaw ant resting

Trapjaw ant resting

More from the world of bugs soon!

Whistling thorn flowering…

Hello – back in Kenya here. The Whistling Thorns are just starting to flower on the plains…

The Whistling Thorn has swollen thorns that ants live in...

The Whistling Thorn has swollen thorns that ants live in...

There are lots of different insects visiting the flowers, including these bees. It seems like the bees are the most efficient pollinators of this acacia’s flowers.

Honeybees visit the flowers in large numbers

Honeybees visit the flowers in large numbers

This is a leafcutter bee - it carries pollen on its belly!

This is a leafcutter bee - it carries pollen on its belly!

Another kind of bee - there were so many different ones!

Another kind of bee - there were so many different ones!

Here is a wild bee hovering near the flowers

Here is a wild bee hovering near the flowers

Butterflies were also visiting the flowers - This is an African Monarch

Butterflies were also visiting the flowers - This is an African Monarch

Stingless Bees, Ant and Scales!

Dear All – Hello many greetings and thanks to everyone for the kind comments.

I was just in the Kakamega forest where I spent part of the day climbing Lirhanda Hill. At the top of the hill as I paused to catch my breath and cool down in the shade of a Combretum tree, I was startled by a loud cloud of buzzing bees.

At first I flinched, then I saw that they were stingless bees. These are amazing little bees, who live in colonies and make honey, just like the typical honeybees that we are all familiar with. However, the don’t sting and can be watched closely and enjoyed less nervously.

The bees settled down and perched on the lower branches of the tree. I peered closer and was amazed by what I saw. The bees were greedily feeding from small brown lumps on the bark of the young branch. Looking really close revealed that they were licking the brown lumps – which turned out to be scale insects!

Stingless bees gathering on the branch!

Stingless bees gathering on the branch!

The stingless bees were frantically crawling all over the branch imbibing sugary rewards from the scale insects. Stingless bees are important pollinators in the rainforest, but here they were simply a mob of thieves!

Stingless bees licking the scale insects.

Stingless bees licking the scale insects.

The scale insects are actually a carefully tended herd belonging to some Polyrachis ants who were also on the trees. The ants lovingly tend the scale insects and milk them for honeydew, much like we keep cows for milk.

Amazingly, the ants were oblivious to the plundering of their ‘cows’ by the stingless bees. They both fed from the scale insects side-by-side.

Stingless bee and Polyrachis ant feeding side-by-side

Stingless bee and Polyrachis ant feeding side-by-side

The ants were far outnumbered by the stingless bees – that may be why they didn’t try to chase them off!

The ants were out-numbered by the stingless bees

The ants were out-numbered by the stingless bees

The many wily ways of insects making a living are truly amazing. You can learn so much from just watching bugs for even a few minutes! More from the wonderful world of insects soon!

Thank you for the mangoes!

Dear All – here are some pictures to share of some very important and yet overlooked insects. Mangoes are one of the most delicious and widely grown tropical fruits. In Kenya we are very lucky to have lots of mangoes available at the moment – absolutely luscious and so tasty. As we all enjoy our mangoes, perhaps we don’t spare much thought about how the mangoes came into being…

mango-fruits-LR2

On a recent visit to a farm in Western Kenya, the mango trees were flowering and the flowers were being visited by a wide range of pollinators. Without these hard-working insects there would be no mangoes to eat.

Here is a detailed view of a mango flower and a recently pollinated one with a very young fruit next to it:

mango-flowerfruitLR1

Here are some of the pollinators of the mango flowers – they include flies, wasps, tiny bees and ants!

Blue-bottle fly pollinating mango flower

Blue-bottle fly pollinating mango flower

mango-diptera-LR2

There were lots of different flies on the mango flowers

There were lots of different flies on the mango flowers

Another tiny fly on the mango flowers

Another tiny fly on the mango flowers

There were a few wasps and bees around too:

This is a tiny singless bee - very important group of pollinators

This is a tiny singless bee - very important group of pollinators

An unidentified wasp on the flowers

An unidentified wasp on the flowers

Even ants were working on the flowers:

Busy ants on the mango flowers

Busy ants on the mango flowers

The farmers in this area have a lot to be grateful for towards the wonderful diversity of insect pollinators who ensure that there are lots of yummy mangoes to harvest! More from the wonderful world of bugs soon!

mango-farmer-LR1

Ant nanny!

Dear All – Thanks for the kind comments and sparing a moment to consider the world of insects.

 

Here is a another snippet from the rainforest. Climbed a hill on Christmas day so that I could telephone friends and family and wish them well. On the way down I noticed large black ants clambering about the stems of some grasses. As I brushed past them, they did not scurry away as most ants do.

 

I peered closer to one of them to see what they were up to. I flicked the grass with my fingers, and still the ant stood her ground. Then I noticed that she was standing guard over a small ‘herd’ of scale insects.

 

 polyrachis-scales-lr1.jpg

 

In a set-up similar to humans herding cattle and other livestock, many different kinds of ants lovingly tend scale insects, aphids and other plant-feeding bugs. In return the ants get to milk their charges for honeydew. The bugs get a veritable army of protectors, and in some cases even get carried around by their ant nannies!

 

Asante!

Dear All – thanks for your kind comments and reading of this blog over the past year and look forward to sharing more about the world of insects in 2010. Here is a sketch of some thorns that ants live in on the whistling thorn acacia. These are from my recent trip to Laikipia north of Mt Kenya. One particular tree had these silvery and black variegated thorns… They are so lovely I thought this is an apt time to share them – Mother Nature’s natural xmas decorations…More from the world of bugs soon! Asante!acacia-drep-thorns-lr1.jpg

Ant in the evening…

Ant in the evening…

 

A few weeks ago while visiting a forest at the coast I took a stroll in the evening. One of the most common kinds of ants along the East African coast are members of the genus Polyrachis. These are fairly large (as ants go!), over 1 cm long, and can commonly be found clambering around houses and trees.

 

 polyrachis-watamu-lr1.jpg

 

 

This particular ant was wandering up a twig of a tangled shrub at the edge of the path. It walked up and down the stem several times before climbing onto a leaf. These ants are famous for tending other insects – primarily bugs of various kinds that suck plant juices and reward the ants with treats of honeydew. I found this bug lying against the stem where the ant was walking up and down.

 

 fulgorid-watamu-lr1.jpg

 

After a few minutes, the ant clambered on to a leaf in the sunshine. There it sat sunning itself for a few minutes before wandering off.

 

 polyrachis-watamu-lr2.jpg

polyrachis-watamu-lr3.jpg

 

 

 

I wonder what it was thinking of – perhaps ‘How do I get home to my colony?’, Or was it, just like I was, enjoying the evening sunshine streaming through the forest… It seems that even ants need a moment to themselves sometimes.