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Favorite Ant Photographs of 2014

Seems like ants have taken a back seat to other things this year.  Regardless, here are a few of my favorite photographs from 2014.

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Even missing a leg, a Pogonomyrmex warrior is ready to defend her nest.

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Not sure what these Solenopsis workers are finding so interesting on rush milkweed buds.

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Sometime I wasn’t intending to feature ants. For example, I was more interested in the delicate Thurber’s cotton flower than the rover ant visiting the nectary.

 

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Like other cotton plants, the Thurber’s cotton also has extrafloral nectaries that attract ants.

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Nothing is more exciting than finding princess ants about to swarm after the first rains of summer.

 

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How about Messor pergandei taken at my favorite place to visit ants? (A good place to look for ants if you don’t mind dodging mountain bikes, that is. )

Do you have an end-of-the-year post of nature photographs? Feel free to share your link in the comments.

Happy New Year!

Following Elements Through the Universe With a New Book: Your Atomic Self

When scientists study ants, they often find themselves thinking about emergent properties as they discover the sum of the colony adds up to so much more than the individual workers. Dr. Curt Stager has reversed the lens to look at how we humans are made up of atoms, where those atoms come from, where they go, and how they are connected to other processes. He has woven his findings into a new popular-science book:  Your Atomic Self: The Invisible Elements That Connect You to Everything Else in the Universe.

 

 

All matter is made up of atoms, but Dr. Stager has chosen to use the human body as his point of reference. This is a simple, yet effective, way to provide both relatability and scale to general readers. This is not a medical treatise, however, even though it features humans. Instead it is more like a nature hike using our basic knowledge of ourselves as a trail marker for exploring the world of elements.

The “hike” is a far ranging one, covering topics from why the sky is blue to how the nitrogen atoms from salmon end up in spruce trees in the Pacific Northwest. The text is roughly organized by the elements you would expect:  carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, etc. To its credit, it covers recent scientific literature, especially in the field of ecology.

Be sure to read to the end of the book. Dr. Stager has included an epilogue about Albert Einstein that contains gems about the life of the man that are sure to fascinate science historians. As some of you may know, Einstein not only was prominent in the field of physics, but also made huge contributions to chemistry, such as by explaining Brownian motion is due to the movement of atoms and molecules and thus providing evidence of their existence. In this section Stager also gives voice to his ideas about what life is and how emergent properties come into play.

Your Atomic Self would be appropriate for anyone interested in popular science, and particularly to students of chemistry and ecology. Although not about ants per se, if you are looking for in depth information about how common elements are used and recycled, or want to think more about emergence, then this is the book for you.

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Dr. Curt Stager also hosts Natural Selections at North Country Public Radio, for example like this episode about wood ant mounds.

See an excerpt from the book at Huffington Post

Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books (October 14, 2014)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1250018846
ISBN-13: 978-1250018847

Disclosures: The book was provided by the publisher for review purposes. I am an affiliate for Amazon, and if you click through the linked titles or ads and make a purchase, I will receive a small commission at no extra charge to you. Proceeds will be used to maintain this self-hosted blog.

Two New Guides to Identifying Bumble Bees

On a trip to western New York in October, I was taken by how many bumble bees there were.

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Some were resting on leaves, etc.

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Others were collecting pollen and nectar. Because there were so many, in fact, I soon wished I knew how to identify bumble bees better.

It not uncommon to have difficulty identifying bumble bees. Some species vary quite a bit in color and don’t have a lot of distinct morphological differences. Much of the bumble bee literature is quite old and the keys are out of date.

Fortunately The USDA Forest Service and The Pollinator Partnership recently have created two identification guides for bumble bees:  Bumble Bees of the Eastern United States by Sheila Colla, Leif Richardson and Paul Williams and Bumble Bees of the Western United States by Jonathan Koch, James Strange and Paul Williams

The two guides can be downloaded as free .pdfs at The Xerces Society (scroll to bottom of page).

(There are free downloadable bumble bee posters at the USDA Forest Service, too -scroll down.)

Looking through the Bumble Bees of the Eastern United States guide, I believe the bumble bee above on the thistle flower is Bombus impatiens, the common eastern bumble bee.

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I can’t wait to give the western one a try on the species here in the Southwest.

Have you seen these guides? What kind of bumble bees do you see regularly?

Also, does anyone know of a rather small bumble bee that may have been introduced to western New York?

Arthropod Zombies: National Geographic Article In Time For Halloween

Just in time for Halloween is a scary article about parasites that control their hosts’ behavior in the November 2014 issue of National Geographic, “Mindsuckers:  Meet Nature’s Nightmare” by Carl Zimmer.

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Let’s meet some ant relatives, the parasitic wasps, and learn how they turn their hapless arthropod hosts into “zombies.”

Excerpt:

“It is as astonishing as it is sad to watch a ladybug turn into a zombie. Normally ladybugs are sophisticated and voracious predators. A single individual may devour several thousand aphids in a lifetime. To find a victim, it first waves its antennae to detect chemicals that plants release when they’re under attack by herbivorous insects. Once it has homed in on these signals, the ladybug switches its sensory scan to search for molecules released only by aphids. Then it creeps up and strikes, ripping the aphid apart with barbed mandibles.

Ladybugs are also well protected against most of their enemies. Their red-and-black dome, so adorable to the human eye, is actually a warning to would-be predators: You will regret this. When a bird or some other animal tries to attack, the ladybug bleeds poison from its leg joints. The attacker tastes the bitter blood and spits the ladybug out. Predators learn to read the red-and-black wing covers as a message to stay away.

A predator protected from other predators, the ladybug would seem to have the perfect insect life—were it not for wasps that lay their eggs inside its living body.”

The article goes on to talk about how a parasitic wasp feeds on the lady beetle, controlling it in a gruesome way.

As you would expect from National Geographic, the photographs in the November 2014 article are fantastic and chilling, all in one.

Mindsuckers

(Photograph © by Anand Varma/National Geographic; Jacques Brodeur Lab, University of Montreal, copyrighted image used with permission).

“Parasitic Wasp Dinocampus coccinellae
Spotted Lady Beetle Coleomegilla maculata
Ladybugs are said to bring good luck—but one infected by the wasp species Dinocampus coccinellae is decidedly unfortunate. When a female wasp stings a ladybug, it leaves behind a single egg. After the egg hatches, the larva begins to eat its host from the inside out. When ready, the parasite emerges and spins a cocoon between the ladybug’s legs. Though its body is now free of the tormentor, the bug remains enslaved, standing over the cocoon and protecting it from potential predators. Some lucky ladybugs actually survive this eerie ordeal.”

What is that glowing golden object on the spider’s back? It turns out that even spiders are not immune.

Mindsuckers

(Photograph © by Anand Varma/National Geographic. Copyrighted image used with permission.)

“The spider Leucauge argyra suffers a series of humiliations at the hands of the parasitic wasp Hymenoepimecis argyraphaga before it is put out of its misery. Paralyzed by the wasp’s sting, the spider stands helpless as its tormentor deposits an egg on its abdomen. Once the egg hatches, the larva holds tight to the spider like some malignant piggybacker, feeding on its internal fluids for a week. When ready to pupate, the larva coerces the spider into setting out on one last, misguided building project. Ripping down its own carefully constructed web, the spider spins a novel one consisting of just a few thick crossing strands. The larva rewards the spider for its efforts by sucking it dry. Then it spins its cocoon at the intersection of the two strands, where it can dangle safely out of reach of predators.”

(Images and text are from the November 2014 issue of National Geographic magazine.)

The article goes on to discuss several other examples and the evolutionary significance of these bizarre lifestyles. If you are a biologist, especially an entomologist, you are probably familiar with some of these examples, but perhaps not all of them.

Reading the article does give me some ideas for awesome Halloween costumes.

What do you think of the Mindsuckers article? Do you think the tie-ins to popular culture help foster science communication or do you think it confuses the lay audience?

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Thank you to Lauren for bringing this article/opportunity to my attention.