Monday, May 22, 2006

I love the smell of ants in the morning....

I've come to some understanding, I think, with dolichoderine ants, while collecting several species on the island over the last few days.

I can identify ants to subfamily with a microscope, and to genus with a good key, but my vision isn't super-sharp, and a lot of the ants here in the tropics are completely new to me. Included among these ants are many that can deliver a potent sting, and as much as I like Hymenoptera, I prefer not to get myself envenomated, so I handle all unfamiliar ants with care. Fortunately, I don't always have to rely on vision alone. Dolichoderines don't sting, but many of them are aggressive, nervous little biters, and members of this family are also notorious for giving off strong-smelling secretions. (We encountered some Iridomyrmex in Australia that smelled like toluene.) So, when you stir up a dolichoderine nest, you get sprayed with potent ant gas and pinched by a whole lot of mandibles.

In one major group of dolichoderines, riled-up ants give off a strong scent of bleu cheese and coconut. So, when I approach a nest or trail of unfamiliar ants, I'll handle them with forceps or an aspirator. If I start smelling (or, while using an aspirator, tasting) bleu cheese and coconut, I know I've got dolichoderines. This means two things. One, they can't sting me. Two, if I stick my fingers into the nest or trail, so many will bite me that it's a reasonably easy task to scrape them off into an alcohol vial. That is, if I can get the mandibles unlocked. Some of them bite so firmly that they hang on even when dead.

I've had to not only collect dolichoderines, but use some of them for parasite bait. So, it seems only fair that I've been using myself for ant bait from time to time. And, at this point, the early afternoon rain has stopped, so I'm going to go annoy some leafcutter ants for what will probably be my last field experiment on BCI. Leafcutters are myrmicines (not dolichoderines), so there will be no bleu cheese or coconut involved. In fact, although many myrmicines sting, leafcutters don't. So I expect a mellow experience, although the ants may have a different opinion.

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