A very popular question this time of year is, "How do I find an ant queen?"

As with many things, finding an ant queen requires work, patience and sometimes a bit of good luck.

1. The very first step is to make sure you can identify an ant queen from a worker ant when you see one.

(Note:  the middle section in ants is not technically a thorax as it is called in other insects, but is now called a "mesosoma." Alex Wild in his article at Myrmecos calls it a thorax to avoid confusing beginners, I believe. I originally used an older term "trunk" in some of the figures.)

camponotus-pennsylvanicus-queenThis carpenter ant queen formed a small chamber under the loose bark of a log.

2. You also need to understand the colony cycle in ants.

There are many variations, but in general the colony is founded by a single queen or group of queens. The queen(s) lay eggs that hatch into larvae. Once the larvae are mature, they pupate, sometimes within cocoons (See eggs versus pupae ). The first adults to emerge will be the wingless worker ants.

ant-life-cycle

When the colony conditions are right, the queen lays some eggs that will become new queens and males. The adults will have wings. They are called "alates."

Camponotus-pennsylvanicus-3-alatesAlex Wild calls the females with wings that have not gone on their mating or nuptial flight "princesses."  They may stay in the nest for weeks until conditions are just right.

When the winged ants are flying out of the nest in order to mate and start new colonies, it can be called "swarming," the "nuptial flight" or simply "mating flight." Unfortunately swarming is also used to describe mass movements of ants, so it can be a confusing word. Generally the workers ants are rushing about in great numbers protecting the emerging males and princesses as they prepare to fly off.

Nuptial flights or swarms of ants

Once they have mated, the "princesses" generally pull off their wings and are ready to start new colonies. This is an optimal time to find new wingless queen ants.

3. Next, learn something about what kind of ants you might find in your area. If you have one or two species in mind (I would recommend larger-sized ants that don't sting for a first ant farm), then you can look up when queens are likely to be active in your area.

How do you do find out what kinds of ants are in your area? One place to start is AntWeb, which has ants identified by region. See that tab at the top of this page that says Ant-Related Websites, Forums and Blogs? There are a number of blogs that specialize on ants in a given region. (Please let me know if you have one to add.)  You can also search the ant forums by the name of your state or country for more information. You might consider joining an ant forum or social media group to learn more about the hobby, as well.

4. In general, ants tend to swarm associated with certain environmental conditions such as temperature, humidity, time of day, and precipitation. For example, in New England, you can be sure to find carpenter ant queens running on the ground the morning after the first spring thundershowers, likely in May. Here in the Southwest, harvester ants swarm after the summer rains in July called monsoons. Learn what conditions the ants you are looking for prefer and watch the weather!

Swarming in winter ants at Myrmecos

More about ant queens and new colonies

5. Finally, nothing beats getting outside and searching around (just be sure you have permission to collect where you search.) Look under stones, sticks or near where lights are left on all night. I found some queens near tennis courts, which have bright lights on at night. Others have found queens that have fallen into pools. Good luck!

You also might be interested in:

Beginners Guide to Ant Keeping

Does anyone have anything to add?

This week we're going to be doing a little trash talking. About ant trash, that is.

midden-veterans-oasis-rugosus-nov-2012

Ant trash or "middens" are the discarded materials that ants pile around or near their nests or mounds. Today we're picking through the middens of a colony of Pogonomyrmex rugosus harvester ants found at Veteran's Oasis park in Chandler, AZ. This first photo was taken on November 29, 2012.

What do you see? Small bits of rocks, of course. Those are common around harvester ant nests.

Being familiar with the plants found in the area, it is also possible to pick out some discarded seed materials.

The fuzzy strips are from creosote bush seeds. (Links go to posts about the plant at Growing with Science blog.)

creosote-bush-seeds(Creosote bush seeds)

You can also find some desert mallow, Sphaeralcea sp.

desert-mallow-seeds

The desert mallow seeds have a covering that is often seen in these middens.

desert-mallow-actual-seedsThis is what the desert mallow seeds look like with the covering removed.

Finally, the larger pale seed toward the upper right is a mesquite of some sort.

rugosus-midden-may-2013-074The next two photographs were taken on May 6, 2013.

rugosus-midden-may-2013-close_0089

Taking a closer look, it is apparent that for the most part these middens consist of discarded dark gray fringed seeds from brittlebush, Encelia farinosa.

brittlebush-seedsBrittlebush seeds

 

rugosus-middens-august-029

In August 2014, although there were still brittlebush seeds, the mix was more varied.

rugosus-middens-august-27

The larger, ovoid brown seeds are apparently from a honey mesquite.

honey-mesquite-seedHoney mesquite seeds

 

p-rugosus-entrance-close-111

Over the weekend I visited the same colony again (April 26, 2015).

See the brittlebush and desert mallow seeds near the top of the photograph? Some of those were being dropped by workers from outside the nest and picked up by other workers to be taken inside. Other were being taken out.

rugosus-middens-spring-0074Around the nest, the ground is covered with plant material likely deposited by the ants.

rugosus-middens-spring-2015-0073Note:  the brown round objects are jackrabbit scats, probably incidental.

rugosus-middens-spring-2015-closeClose-up, it looks like quite a few desert mallow, creosote bush and some brittlebush discards.

What does studying middens tell us?

First of all, from the photographs we can safely say that as the colony has matured it seems to be gathering a substantially larger amount of plant material. The amount of middens probably isn't a clear indicator of colony size, however, because the quantity of middens likely also varies with season, habitat, and recent weather. Taber (1998) indicates that worker harvester ants may store trash in underground chambers. These trash chambers may be closed off, or periodically cleaned out and brought to the surface causing a flush of discarded materials.

We can also make some assumptions about what seeds the harvesters are gathering throughout the season.  Thus, these Pogonomyrmex rugosus workers are gathering seeds from mostly local desert species of plants.

What ends up in the trash, however, may not accurately entirely reflect what is being consumed. It is likely some seeds are used completely and have no husks to discard. Think about it, how accurately does your trash reflect what you eat?

Have you studied ant middens? What did you find out?

When we first moved into our home, the yard was barren. Well, except for the numerous Solenopsis xyloni mounds.

Now, twenty years later, we no longer have Solenopsis xyloni. As the landscape has matured, the yellow Solenopsis amblychila have moved in instead. A few nights ago we noticed a swarming event just at sundown or about 6:00 p.m.

solenopsis-workers-during-swarm

The colony was under a small fairy duster plant next to a sidewalk. The workers were swarming about excitedly.

males-and-workers-024

The males came out first, like small airplanes getting lined up to take off.

Solenopsis-males-on-leaves-027

solenopsis-males-on-leaf-111

One by one, the males moved out onto the open sidewalk.

solenopsis-male-beginning-to-take-off-039

In a blink of an eye, they were gone.

The princesses came out shortly later, when the light was too low for photographs.

It is unclear what triggered the ants to swarm. There hasn't been any rain in weeks. Perhaps it was the artificial rain of some nearby lawn sprinklers. Or perhaps it is simply because it is the end of the wildflower season and the fact that food, in the form of seeds, is wildly abundant.

No matter. It is always exciting to see ants swarming.

Whenever a book features honey bees like The Bees: A Novel by Laline Paull, it is likely to catch the interest of apidologists and others who find bees fascinating. Although this book falls definitively in the realm of fiction, that does not mean it has nothing to say about honey bees or, for that matter, our human perception of them. For this particular novel, however, separating the fact from the fiction is where things get sticky.

Told from a third person limited point of view, Flora 717 is a member of the sanitation caste of her honey bee hive. We soon learn that she is no ordinary sanitation worker when she is allowed to feed the new larvae in the Nursery. There, in a bit of foreshadowing, it is revealed that only the Queen may breed and Flora 717 is introduced to the gruesome fertility police.  What else will this special worker bee do?

The book contains facts, such as honey bee workers produce wax from glands on their abdomen or that drones are kicked out of the hive in the fall, mixed with highly imaginative elements. Sometimes the creative aspects of the story are easy to discern, for example there is a Greek chorus of spiders that exchange glimpses of the future for honey bee sacrifices. Other parts, like Flora 717's changing tasks through time, will be more difficult to decipher. Anyone familiar with honey bees will understand that they exhibit age or temporal polyethism, which means that the tasks they perform are generally determined by their age. The youngest honey bee workers are likely to clean cells, and then tend brood. Once the workers are a bit older they maintain the nest, as needed. Finally the workers process food, and the very oldest honey bees go outside the nest and forage for nectar and pollen. Thus, ironically, Flora 717 is not an unusual bee as she is described in the novel, but actually is the only bee in the hive that is exhibiting more or less normal honey bee behavior. Trying to avoid spoilers, it should also be noted that an event in the end will seem (to those that understand haplodiploidy) rather like those children's cartoons that show male cows with udders.

The New York Times Review reveals some of the foibles of reading a work of fiction that is built on a foundation of reality. Emma Straub, the reviewer, suggests high school environmental science and biology teachers add the book to their syllabuses. In all due respect, I think they'd be better off with more authoritative text. How about Sue Hubbell's A Book of Bees, or something similar and newer?

Many of the reviewers (who understand the novel is fiction) try to tie The Bees to other classic novels, such as  Watership Down, The Handmaid’s Tale, or even The Hunger Games. It is as if the readers need to put a tag on the novel to understand it more fully. In my view, The Bees is actually as individualistic as its main character Flora 717. If it needs a tag, then I would say "magical realism" might be the best choice.

If you read The Bees, keeping in mind that it is novel and suspending a bit of disbelief, then you are likely to find it entertaining and maybe even thought provoking. What more can a reader ask of a novel?

Have you read it? What do you think?

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A Book of Bees: And How to Keep Them by Sue Hubbell

Disclosures:  This book review was based on a personal copy of the book. I am an affiliate with Amazon so I can provide you with cover images and links to more information about books and products. As you probably are aware, if you click through the highlighted title link and purchase a product, I will receive a very small commission, at no extra cost to you. Any proceeds help defray the costs of hosting and maintaining this website.