Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Arizona: Meeting Ray Mendez


An incredible highlight of the Ants of the Southwest course was a visit to Ray Mendez's house.

Here is his house, and that's the view he gets to wake up to every morning.

It's Pogonomyrmex adjacent.

Inside he has some interesting artwork hanging from the ceiling. But you might be asking, what makes Ray so special?

He made the alien egg and worked on some of the effects for the movie "Alien." He also helped inspired what has to be the greatest tagline for a horror movie in cinema history. "In space no one can hear you scream."


He did the bug work for the film, "Silence of the Lambs."

It's actually a cockroach done up to be a moth.

He was the roach wrangler to the film "Joe's Apartment," which is admittedly a bad movie but the stories he has to tell about making it sound like they had an awesome time filming. (They got to pump a few thousand roaches up a girl's dress.)

His portfolio includes a smattering of advertising campaigns.

Here Ray bestows his wisdom to the Ants of the Southwest class in his workshop.

He also builds professional grade setups for museum exhibits and sets used for documentations to film. Pictured above is an above ground scene used in "Empire of the Desert Ants" a few years ago. It's hard to see but there are two openings leading down beneath the setup. Two different colonies can be hooked up here and their interactions filmed. For the documentary they filmed both the demise of the main colony, as well as the main colony conquering anther nest all at the same time. Because the ants of both colonies look identical you don't know that you're looking at two separate colonies.

For these setups, whole nests can be attached underneath. This allows camera men to film the workers right as they emerge from the hole. The whole setup as well as the disk can also be buried in the ground and blended in with the surrounding soil. This way filmmakers can have an ant nest in an ideal location for both lighting, background, and ambiance.

Here are two nest setups placed side to side. Each one is its own chamber to help with a movie trick. Also note the openings in the hydrostone/plaster against the plexiglass along the top.

Though empty now, ants can be added as needed. Because the front setup has windows on both sides, you can look all the way through into the second setup. Should a scene call for a wall of honeypot ants hanging in the background, to show the colony is doing well, they just slide that setup in back. But should the scene call for the colony having to rough it, they can either remove the ants or change the background nest entirely. This is a trick I'd like to incorporate into future setup designs someday.

When filming honeypot ants it's always nice being able to make the honeypots glow. This is achieved by shining a flash light down through the openings in the hydrostone/plaster.

As seen here.

And here.

Condensation can be an issue at times. Ray uses a fan, on low, to blow through a tube, sending a light breeze through the nest. It's important to leave a gap between the fan and the tube, otherwise it will create a wind tunnel and can blow the ants right out of the setup or dry it out too quickly. Typically ants don't go through tunnels that have wind blowing through them, but the use of metal mesh might be required.

Watering is done by placing a tube through the bottom of the setup when casting.

Once it's dry the tube can be removed and the ends replaced by nozzles. This way water can be added beneath the ants nesting area and allowed to absorb into the rest of the setup.

Setups for his personal colonies are surprisingly simple and yet ingenious. 

New queens are started in clusteral setups. Plaster lining the bottoms of vented containers. And a VERY THIN LAYER of soil media is added. I emphasis very little because Ray doesn't want the queen digging down into it, or building walls that will only collapse when watered. Also it was nice knowing that even he suffered from the problem "Collect 50 queens and maybe 10 of them are successful."

Queens that rear their first workers are moved into slightly larger setups. In this case a Myrmecocystus species, Honeypot ants.

Upon getting their first few repletes, he upgrades their nesting accommodation as needed.


We all got to eat a replete too. There's a trick to it because they're in a subfamily known for Formic Acid. You rupture them first to let the volatile chemicals disperse a sec, and then eat the mess left in your hand. Eating them whole also works but there's an immediate displeasing taste from the formic acid.

All his repletes had a taste of apples because he always keeps a slice of apple in the foraging area. The ants nibble at the apple over time, and then place their waste upon it, making clean up nice and easy. All you need to do is replace the apple slice.  

Colonies of Pogonomyrmex, harvester ants, are notorious for stuffing crud and frass right up against the glass. To get around this, he places them in horizontal setups so the ants can be viewed from above.

He does this with Aphaenogaster too but but I'm not sure if there was any specific reason for it.

He has a colony of Atta, Leaf-cutter Ants!

Leaf-cutter Ants cut up leaves to bring home and feed to their fungus gardens.

Here you can see the media workers placing little bits of leaves among the fungi.

Near the top of the main garden lies the queen. Atta queens are the largest ants in the United States at ~25mm long. The next closest comparison are some of our Carpenter ant queens that can be as large as ~20mm long. 

The only real tip he had about keeping fungus ants was to never let them grow their fungus on the ground. New queens just starting out sort of have to make do, but established colonies, even ones with basketball sized fungus gardens don't let their fungus sit on the ground. Often the fungus will grow amongst the roots of plants or on top of stones.

I learned an awful lot from Ray and can't wait to put this knowledge to good use. I'm thrilled to have met him and even asked for his autograph.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Arizona: Dorymyrmex Study

Dorymyrmex, despite being a common genus, remains something of a mystery in North America. The trouble is that no one's really studied them well enough to get the genus right. Eastern species are fairly well known, but out west.... the genus is in pure chaos. Basically if it's black it keys out to Dorymyrmex insanus, and studies that look into the matter simply describe new species with a sentence or two.


The station we stayed at had loads of colonies of them on the property. We spent a day flagging each of them, and then putting sets of workers together to see if they got along or not.

Workers from the same colony got along, those from different one almost murdered on another on sight.

Though time consuming, it's fun work.

We found that the colonies had changed boundaries from the previous year, as well one of them had become massive in size (not in photo). Pictured above is a typical nest comprised of maybe 6 to 12 holes. The large colony crossed one of the trails here and was comprised of 26 holes.

We dug up one nest and found the general structure of one of their nests is simply one narrow tunnel leading down at a slight angle, leading through several galleries.

For time reasons we didn't get down below 3'. And it likely extends much deeper than that. Most of the ant nests in the area seem to go down 12' or so. How many queens they have, or if the ant hills are connected somehow underground are unknown. It's likely that these nests are not connected and there might be only one queen per hole, but also likely that in the winter the nests combine down into fewer holes. Perhaps queen number and or age help determine the number of satellite holes. 

That was the extent of our study. Future courses may continue the work.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Arizona: Army Ants

Neivamyrmex is the most abundant and diverse genus of army ants in North America.

There's a lot of assumptions when the public thinks of army ants, a lot of which are wrong. Army Ants have nomadic colonies, with one parent queen, and occasionally a few daughter queens. Colonies divide, unlike most ant species which send out thousands or millions of new queens to start up colonies on their won. They are specialized predators of other ant colonies which makes their hunting habits mostly subterranean or roaming through leaf litter where they're hardly seen.

Most Documentaries like to show the genera Eciton from South America, or Dorylus from Madagascar. And odd ball species of their respected genera at that. Cameramen like to focus on the specific species that raid for other insects more so than ant colonies, which is not the norm compared to other species in their genera. This surface raiding makes for good TV, but leads one to believe it to be the norm.

The nomadic lifestyle means they make nests virtually anywhere they can fit. Here a colony took up at least 25 rocks lining a hillside, and they had excavated tunnels deep into the adjacent soil media. Their own brood was spread out all over and there was a single raiding line leaving to raid ant nests as food.

We collected several hundred of the workers and brood for a laboratory setup. A simple plastic container lined with Fluon, a substance which ants can't climb up.

They quickly brought all the brood into the bivouacs, nests formed of the ants themselves. There was on central one that had about 80% of the ants and brood, with smaller ones in each corner of the setup. What was neat was in the morning and afternoon they formed raiding lines to connect each bivouac together and these smaller ones were dissolved as needed. Feeding them the brood from other ant colonies put more ants to work and the corner gatherings vanished completely while they gathered up the brood.

The brood was mostly kept in the dark, protected by the ants themselves. The main bivouac was around a small tube of water.

It was neat staring into the mass of ants. Blowing on them would result in a flurry of activity.

While they ran about the container, the brood became visible.

Army Ants are mostly blind. This species in particular, Neivamyrmex nigrescens, has only one eye facet. Meaning they can pretty much tell when it's light and dark out but little else. Their antennae are constantly probing the air for odors that don't belong.



Surprisingly we found Army Ants out in the desert too. It's likely the nest was that of an existing ant colony they had raided.

This species was much much smaller than the ones we had found by the station and up in the mountains some.

A lot of Army Ant identification hinges on whether one particular grove between the mesonotum and pronotum (on the thorax, in front of the front legs) wraps around the sides and top of the ant completely, or whether it dissolves or smooths out somewhat along the way. It's not a great feature, I know because Gordon Snelling came up with the key, and was standing next to me when he said he wasn't happy with that one particular question in his key. But this is one of those features that separates a few species from several others. Perhaps it's more pronounced in certain worker castes?

A lot of species of Army Ants are known to exists by their males. Male Army Ants fly off from the colonies at certain times of the year with the intention of being captured by anther Army Ant colony of their own species. Assuming the colony has virgin queens that need mating with, they collect him into the nest where he inseminates one of them. The problem is, these male ants were known only by showing up at lights at night and many of them look identical. 

Male ants in general are difficult to identify. Because they're a breeding caste that colonies produce only at a certain time of year for that purpose. Evolution hasn't been kind to them either, especially compared to the worker and queen castes.

Army Ant males are identified mostly by dissecting the abdomen and observing the shape of their genitals. So scientists knew several species from the males they were collecting at lights but hadn't been able to match them up to what workers they belong to. This is something Gordon Snelling and his father helped clear up.

We dumped a few of them onto a colony of Myrmecocystus (honeypot ants) hoping to see a specific reaction. In response to Army Ants raiding a colony, many ant species out right abandon their nests queen and all in the hopes to regroup elsewhere. It didn't work, perhaps because Myrmecocystus have a lot to lose from abandoning their repletes (honeypots).

Army Ants are unusual in that the adults can consume solid food. Most ants can't do this.

We fed the lab colony the brood to a while colony when we saw, sadly, they had started cannibalizing their own brood.