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Have you read The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency collection of books by Alexander McCall Smith? In these mystery novels Precious Ramotswe, a private detective in Botswana, often partakes in redbush tea. Did you know that she might not be drinking that tea if it weren't for ants?

cup-of-tea

Redbush tea, also known as rooibos, is processed from the shoots and leaves of a native African plant, Aspalathus linearis. Cultivation of the plant was initially difficult because when the seed pods mature, they rupture and shoot out the seeds. As you can imagine, that made it nearly impossible to find and pick up large enough quantities of the seeds to farm the plants.

Farmers eventually discovered certain kinds of ants harvest and store the rooibos seeds in their nests. The farmers collected seeds from the ant nests and planted them successfully. Now farmers have developed a technique to sift the soil for seed and do not rely on ants as much. Because of their initial use of the harvesting power of ants, however, redbush tea is now available worldwide.

Note: Contrary to some reports on the Internet, the seeds gathered by ants are used to grow new plants, not to make the tea itself.

Does anyone know what species of ant is involved?

Links to more information:

Rooibos Farming - From Seed to Shop

All About Rooibos

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If you've ever tried it, you know that photographing ants is difficult, more so than other insects. Ants are almost always in motion. Even if they are sitting still feeding, they are stridulating or their antennae are waving. If you get too close, they defend themselves with bites and stings. Some species are quite tiny, even as insects go. You need a microscope, not a camera.

After discovering yet another website with fantastic, drool-over ant photographs, mymician (check this post), I began to think about my own photographic techniques. Here are a few examples.

Tripods are for Weenies
My personal technique for photography definitely doesn't involve tripods. I am usually hiking with my family when I spot an ant I'd like to photograph. My husband runs half-marathons. If I took time to even think about setting up a tripod, he would be so far ahead I would never see him again.

Speed Shots
Have you heard of speed dating? This is similar, except with a camera. There is no time to set up the shot. You get a first impression, click and run to the next opportunity.

If you don't use this technique, you hear statements like:

"Mom, I just lost my shoe down a mine shaft."
"Mom, I don't see dad any more."
And my personal favorite:
"Mom, I just sat on a cactus."

(That's why I carry duct tape and forceps everywhere.)

Speed shots work best if you can control your breathing, blood pressure and heart rate like a professional sniper.

Perfect Lighting
Hand-held flash? No, perfect lighting is when there isn't a cat, dog or kid lying on your subject.

Macro Photography Skills
The best part about macro lenses is that they have a very narrow depth of field unless you know about those F-thingies and/or you have read the manual that came with your camera. Yes, you get a very close view of the creature, but only one hair on its head is in focus.

Brachymyrmex queen
Brachymyrmex queen

Here's a lovely example.

Focus

Focus is what your eyes don't do once you approach 50.

You know what a doubler is? It is a gizmo to put on your camera that allows you to take more than double the number of out of focus photos. (Thank goodness for digital).

If you want to really learn how to take pictures of ants, try Alex Wild's Photo Technique: Working With Ants. Now, there's someone who can take a photograph.

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Are you interested in learning more about ants? Why not start with some great books?

Fisher, B. L. and S. P. Cover. (2007). Ants of North America: A Guide to the Genera. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Keys to the genera of ants found in North America with line drawings to help clarify the defining characteristics.

Hansen, L. D., and J. H. Klotz. (2005). Carpenter ants of the United States and Canada. Ithaca, NY: Comstock Publishing Associates.
Laurel Hansen and John Klotz review the biology of carpenter ants (Genus Camponotus), in a book dedicated to Professor Roger Akre.

Holldobler, B. and E.O. Wilson. (1990). The ants. Cambridge MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Who would have thought a book about ants would win a Pulitzer Prize? This book has towered over all that came after it.

Holldobler, B. and E.O. Wilson. (1994). Journey to the ants: A story of scientific exploration. Cambridge MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
A briefer version of their previous book written more for the general audience.

Holldobler, B. and E.O. Wilson. (2009). The superorganism. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.
Have you read this book yet? It contains a lot of natural history information about ants, as well as other social insects, no matter what you think about their thesis.

Hoyt, E. (1996). The earth dwellers: Adventures in the land of ants. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Go with the author on a field trip of the lifetime with ant specialists Bill Brown (William Brown, Jr. ) and E.O. Wilson.

Tschinkel, W.R. (2006) The Fire Ants. Cambridge MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Walter Tschinkel shares his passion and lifetime of research on the study of fire ants.

Has anyone read The Lives of Ants by Laurent Keller and Elisabeth Gordon yet? I'd love to hear what you think.

(For information about my affiliation with Amazon, please click the financial disclosure button in the header of the blog).

The 44th Edition of the Circus of the Spineless is up at Marmorkrebs.blogspot.com. The Circus of the Spineless is a monthly blog carnival devoted to all things invertebrate, including ants. It was started in 2005. If you are interested in finding out more, visit the Circus of the Spineless home page. Next month's carnival will be at Greg Laden's Blog.

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