Sunday, March 26, 2017

Predator and Prey: Ants versus Termites

My neighborhood walk in Colorado Springs the other day, March 25, was like strolling through living confetti at some points. All the local termite colonies were launching swarms of winged males and potential queens (alates as scientists call them). The frail creatures were not ignored by other animals, either, especially ants. Closer inspection of the swarms revealed three species of ants preying on them.

Alate subterranean termites (Reticulitermes sp.) swarming

Termite swarms are not an indication of the impending collapse of your home or any other wooden structure. Yet, that is the first thought that enters the mind of the average person witnessing the spectacle. Such is the power of advertising for pest control companies. Now, a termite swarm inside your home should probably be cause for alarm. Outdoors, subterranean termites like these Reticulitermes sp. are vital to the recycling of decaying wood. They nest in the soil, as their common name suggests, and forage for wood and other dry cellulose in contact with the soil.

The synchronous nature of termite swarms is a marvel. All colonies in a given area need to liberate their reproductive castes at the same time in order to prevent inbreeding, but I have no idea how they "decide" when to do this. The day before we had snow and high winds. The alates issue from the tiniest of cracks in the soil, like toothpaste from the tube, the better to avoid easy detection. Eventually, enough of the insects appear that their gauzy wings reflect the sun and give away their presence. Soldier termites, and workers, too, escort them out and see them off.

Alate termites with workers and soldier (center) escorts

Hundreds, if not thousands, of winged termites begin filling the air. Few will survive the alert eyes and hungry mouths of birds, lizards, and other predators. The early season timing of swarms may in fact be tuned to precede the emergence of reptiles and the arrival of migrant birds. Ants, on the other hand, are already on the prowl.

Worker Formica sp. ant carrying termite prey

Both ants and termites are social insects, so it is fitting they would be deadly enemies and, one would think, well-matched foes. Watching one swarm happen on the edge of a driveway, I began noticing the appearance of worker ants, Formica sp., crossing the driveway. Eventually I saw one toting a winged termite back to the nest. The ant's nest. More ants followed suit.

Pavement ants (Tetramorium caespitum) killing alate termite (bottom) and worker termite (top)

Turning my attention back to where the termites were emerging, I noticed something even more frightening. Tiny "pavement ants," Tetramorium sp., were killing both alates and worker termites right at the termite nest opening. Whereas Formica ants are a bit larger than the termites, the pavement ants were smaller than their prey. How they avoided the menacing jaws of the soldier termites confounds me.

Formica ants near the entrance to their nest, with prey

Just up the street I noticed heavy ant activity originating at the base of a brick-and-mortar mailbox pillar. These were Formica pallidefulva ants, but appeared larger than the other ones I saw previously. It soon became apparent that they were also taking part in the Great Termite Massacre of 2017. Most of them were carrying wingless alates, though.

Ants (Formica pallidefulva) with termite prey

Alate termites, once paired, shed their wings easily. Both pairs of wings have a weak spot that allows the termites to break them off so they can quickly seek cover. The male ("king") termite follows on the heels of his mate (queen) as they form a two-car train in search of a potential nest site. They must do so quickly if they are to avoid the marauding ants.

Dealate queen with her mate trailing her in a "train"

Whether the honey pot ants were taking dealate (wingless reproductives) termites, or just seizing winged individuals and breaking off their wings, remains a mystery. They are certainly easier to transport without those cumbersome wings.

Worker Formica sp. ant carrying termite prey

As I turned the corner to go home, I caught sight of yet another ant, possibly Formica podzolica. It, too, was carrying a defeated termite. The ant seemed at least somewhat disoriented, and I eventually lost track of it in the thick grass at the edge of the curb.

So, termites are both integral to keeping soils fertile with their decomposition activities, and also a bounty for many other organisms that depend on them for food when other insect life is less plentiful. Ants are the lion kings and wolf packs of the macroscopic landscape, keeping termites and other insects from overrunning the planet. The ants are not immune, though, and in my next post we see them on the other end of the predator-prey equation.

Note: Special thanks to James C. Trager for identification of the ant species.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Identity Denial

Note: This is what you must know about me at this point in my life. I appreciate your respect of that.

There is no such thing as an identity crisis; or if there is, then it is precipitated by a long history of identity denial. Failure to embrace who one truly is inevitably results in resentment, and even hostility toward others. How to reinvent oneself is then the challenge.

I am a writer, a communicator. There was a time I thought I wanted to be a scientist because I felt that was the only path to achieving credibility. The non-fiction writers I admired were also scientists, so it seemed the logical course of action was to enroll in college with a scientific major. So, off to Oregon State University I went, where there was comfort in already knowing some of the faculty and staff who were my mentors earlier in life. Since I honestly do have an affinity for insects and related creatures, I declared entomology as my major.

There were immediate signs that this was not a good idea. I failed mathematics courses. I floundered in chemistry, and avoided physics and statistics. Academia does not reward you for simply having an interest in science. In fact, it punishes you. Higher education tries to break you of empathy and sentimentality for other organisms. Anthropomorphism, the assignment of human emotions to other animals, is banished from the lab, and even from field observations. Ecosystems are abstracted into "models," poor paper substitutes for flesh and blood. Entire landscapes are reduced to soil profiles.

I should have left the sciences for an English or communications major right then and there. Instead I moved over to the School of Forestry where I majored in Recreation Resource Management, where park naturalists earn their cred. I retained entomology as a minor. I excelled at natural history interpretation, but only tolerated, if not struggled with, other subjects. That fourth year was my last. I dropped out with a feeling of emptiness, and certainly an empty bank account.

Despite my lack of an academic degree, I have held professional positions as an entomologist. The Oregon Zoo and Cincinnati Zoo both employed me in their insect exhibits. I worked on a private contract at the Smithsonian Institution, helping catalog the national butterfly collection for a month in 1986. Subsequently, I have had other contracts with the University of Massachusetts (Amherst), and the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources. These jobs paid adequately, if not handsomely, but were mostly unfulfilling in every other regard. Today, there are enough rules and roadblocks that it is impossible for me to be employed this way again anyway. The job application process in general, for almost any position, is so weighted toward exclusion that it is demoralizing and not worth the effort to apply for many of the best potential candidates.

Meanwhile, I persisted in my own efforts to cultivate credibility, and build a following as a trusted expert in the world of popular entomology. At this I have succeeded too well. Actors call it typecasting: Having performed one role so well that they can no longer find work for any other role. Convincing people that I can write about topics other than "bugs" is an excruciatingly slow process, and as I age the sense of urgency only magnifies, and the sense of resentment at my own previous denial of who I am intensifies. Naturally, this expresses itself inappropriately, and I now find myself sighing heavily whenever a stranger asks "Hey, aren't you that 'bug guy'?" At times I want to slap them upside the head.

I will always have an interest in insects, and always be willing to help people educate themselves about the "smaller majority," as entomologist Piotr Naskrecki calls them. However, that is not the sole aspect of my identity and I ask you kindly to respect that. Should you want to follow my Sense of Misplaced blog, even better; and if you can help me find paying markets for my personal essays and social commentary, then you have my eternal appreciation. Thank you.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Honey, I lost the Trox

I was a bit too cavalier the other day in allowing a hide beetle, Trox sp., to relax on the lid of the vial I had it in, on the table while I was taking images of a couple of wolf spiders in a casserole dish we have sacrificed for "studio shots" of various small creatures. Wow, that one sentence says a lot, doesn't it? Well, naturally, when I turned back for the beetle, it was nowhere to be found. It got me thinking about what kinds of things the spouse of an entomologist never wants to hear.

Have you seen me? Trox beetle

Hide beetles, members of the family Trogidae, are innocuous enough. They want nothing to do with us until we are dead. No, really dead. Dried-up dead. Mummified dead. Extra crispy with a few tufts of hair remaining. They come to carcasses after pretty much every other insect has left the scene convinced that nothing of any nutritional value remains. Still, having a normally outdoor insect crawling or flying around the house can be disconcerting. It is certainly not part of most people's "normal" experience.

There is going to be no finding it again unless it raises its profile significantly, which Trox beetles are not prone to do. No amount of "Have you seen me?" posters in every room is going to help, even though it is an adult insect. I understand you cannot even report one missing until it has been gone for a minimum of twenty-four hours. Juvenile insects are even worse. You have to do age progression drawings because metamorphosis changes them so drastically that they become unrecognizable after only a few weeks, sometimes a few days.

Age progression of mosquitoes, also known as "life cycle"

Luckily, the beetle is harmless. I suppose even the most tolerant of roommates and spouses would blow a gasket if their arachnologically-inclined cohabitant suddenly asked "Have you seen my black widow?" This kind of announcement is usually followed by something like "Hey, Where is everybody going (at such a high rate of speed)?" The kids losing a gerbil probably warrants an eye-roll, but just one little venomous organism on the loose and you'd think it was grounds for divorce.

I am fortunate. My wife hardly bats an eye whenever I confess to mishandling some bug that results in it suddenly roaming freely, usually in the vicinity of the kitchen. On more than one occasion she has yelled over to me "Hey, I found your (insert name of fugitive spider or insect here)!" There are also times when she assumes the critter on the counter is something that escaped captivity. If that is not the case then we are both surprised, and not usually in a good way.

Lynx spider on the stove: Nope, not mine

One word of advice to others like myself: It is w-a-a-a-y better to admit your negligence before she is suddenly confronted with the vagrant creature without prior knowledge of its escape. You know that skillet that is always on the stovetop? Yeah? Ok, then you understand that it can be used against both you and the spider.

The worst reception I ever received from my wife was when I enthusiastically related to her over the phone that "the lab guy we met the other day came over with a jar full of bed all life stages!" Hello?....The life of an entomological blogger is fraught with exactly these kinds of dilemmas. You need to do that post on bed bugs, and you need images to go with it. I mean, they can't climb out of the porcelain casserole dish....Can they?