This week it was pallid-winged grasshoppers in Las Vegas (see for example, this story in LiveScience) or check out this AP video
The grasshoppers aren’t the only ones. Last week there was an article about flying ants in Britain being picked up by weather satellites (Guardian article) and in June it was supposedly ladybugs in Southern California (LA Times article) spotted on weather radar, although later reports say no one could verify which insects were actually detected.
Although these swarms can be alarming or exciting depending on your perspective, they are completely natural. Because insects may reproduce rapidly when food supplies are high and enemies are sparse, many species have the potential to build up to high numbers.
In fact, it is probably not amazing that insect blizzards happen, but that that don’t happen even more often.
In a matter of days the insects either migrate away, are eaten, or come to the end of their life cycles. As quickly as they appear, they are gone again.
So for now, grasshoppers are simply having their 15 minutes of fame (or is it infamy?)
As some of you might know, I studied ants for my M.S. degree. When I heard the new middle grade realistic fiction book The Nora Notebooks, Book 1: The Trouble with Ants by Claudia Mills and illustrated by Katie Kath was about a 10-year-old girl who is passionate about ants, I knew I had to pick it up.
It was even better than I hoped. Fourth grader Nora keeps an ant farm. She also records fascinating facts about ants in a journal, with quotes sprinkled throughout the book. She even does a simple experiment with ants and writes a paper about it. If that was all the book was about it would be good, but author Claudia Mills takes it to the next level by including many layers of story. For more details and a full review, see our sister blog, Wrapped in Foil.
Activity 1. How many species of ants?
Often when you read a book about ants, you will see the number of species listed as a fact. Depending on the book, however, the number can vary considerably. Why is that?
Generally, the number of ant species will be different depending on how recently the book is published. Ant scientists (or myrmecologists) are discovering and describing new species all the time and expect the final number to reach upwards of 30,000 species when all potential species have been discovered.
Another reason the number of ant species changes is because scientists who study the classification of ants sometimes realize ants are related in ways that were not previously recognized. When that happens, species can be renamed, grouped with other species, or sometimes one species may be split into two.
(Public domain photograph of a wood ant by Alex Wild)
So, how many ant species are there? One place to find out the current number is a collaborative website like AntWeb which lists the number of species of ants on its homepage as 15,957 as of today (October 9, 2015).
Try to find out how many ant species there are in your area. Antmaps.org is a fun resource to help you. With the map in the “Diversity View,” I clicked on Arizona and found there are 353 native species here. That’s a lot of different kinds of ants! Suggestion: Draw your own infographic map of ant species in your area and find out what some of those species are using the global and regional resources at AntWeb.
Why should we care how many species there are and where they are found? One reason is that it can be helpful to know if new, alien species are coming in. Exotic or alien species often crowd out native species and become pests because they have left their natural enemies behind. We also should know whether species are dying out so we can take steps to prevent their loss.
Check the ant anatomy activity from a previous post for a detailed explanation of the special anatomical terms used for ants.
And don’t forget, if you know a budding myrmecologist, be sure to introduce them to The Trouble With Ants.
Age Range: 7 – 10 years
Hardcover: 176 pages
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers (September 22, 2015)
Disclosures: This book was provided by the publisher for review purposes. I am an affiliate with Amazon so I can provide you with cover images and links to more information about books and products. As you probably are aware, if you click through the highlighted title link and purchase a product, I will receive a very small commission, at not extra cost to you. Any proceeds help defray the costs of hosting and maintaining this website.
While I was taking photographs of the plant, I noticed some ants.
These kind of ants are called rover ants. They are not very big. What are they doing on the plant?
Here’s one in the flower. It is visiting the nectar-producing area or “floral nectary.”
The rover ants were also visiting an area under the flowers, on the sepals. Any ideas why?
Having some experience with cotton plants, I realized the ants were visiting some nectar-producing areas there as well. Nectaries outside the flower proper are called “extrafloral nectaries.” See that dimpled area the ant is facing? That is an extrafloral nectary.
As you can see, the extrafloral nectaries on the plant were very popular.
Many different plants produce nectar in various extrafloral nectaries and most of them attract ants and small wasps.
The most commonly-reported reason that plants have these structures is that the nectaries attract predators and parasites, which in turn attack the eggs and larvae of plant-feeding insects they encounter.
Have you ever seen ants visiting nectaries on plants? What kind of plant was it?