More arboreal black weaver ants – Polyrhachis dives and others

A guest post by Dr Mike Downes; his first, about a different species of black weaver ants, is here.

The subject of ant nests came up recently after an object of interest was handed in at the Museum of Tropical Queensland:

ant nest
Exhibit A
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Wallaman wildlife 1: ant-mimicking spider

Jumping spiders are undeniably cute, even to people who ‘don’t like spiders’. They display a fearless, active curiosity about the world around them out of all proportion to their diminutive stature, and they have those big eyes which somehow prompt a gush of affection even across the huge gulf between two-metre anthropod (1) and five-millimetre arthropod. They are also common enough in our gardens and houses to be observed often, are enormously varied (500+ species) and display a wide range of hunting habits. Some of them (getting to the point of this post at last) mimic ants.

black ant
Ant: Polyrhachis sp.

This ant, one of many I saw on the strappy leaves of a clump of what may have been flax lilies in the Wallaman Falls camping ground, is very similar to the common Polyrhachis ammon but is a bit smaller at 4-5mm. I am reliably informed that it is closely related even though we can’t be sure of its exact identity; we will have to call it just Polyrhachis.

jumping spider
Pretending to be an ant: really a jumping spider

When I saw this spider I thought, as I was intended to, that it was another of the ants. It was the same size and coloration … but its movements weren’t quite right: spiders dart and pause, while ants tend to keep moving. Its head looked too big, too. When I disturbed it, it stretched out its front legs which had been tucked up beside its head and it suddenly was clearly a spider (eight legs, no antennae), not an ant (six legs plus antennae).

jumping spider
Clearly a jumping spider: Ligonipes sp.

So why do spiders imitate ants? Fadia Sara Ceccarelli of JCU studied them and puts it this way:

The aggressive nature of ants, and their possession of noxious chemicals, stings and strong mandibles make them unfavourable prey for many animals. The resemblance of a similar-sized arthropod to an ant can therefore also protect the mimic from predation.

Myrmarachne is an ant-mimicking salticid spider genus, whose species associate closely with their model ant species. The behavioural reactions of Myrmarachne to ants were analysed, including instances when there was contact between the spider and the ant. In Townsville the salticid Cosmophasis bitaeniata and one Myrmarachne species associate with Oecophylla smaragdina workers. The Myrmarachne mimics the ant visually, and Cosmophasis bitaeniata mimics the cuticular hydrocarbons of the O. smaragdina worker ants. Cosmophasis and Myrmarachne also mimic ants through certain types of behaviour, such as the “antennal illusion” and bobbing the opisthosoma up and down.

She goes on to say that the spiders avoid contact with the ants and manage to avoid being attacked by them, so it is clear that the mimicry is defensive, helping them avoid attacks from predators. An American study of a similar ant-mimic found that it was an effective strategy:

Ant-like appearance (myrmecomorphy) has evolved >70 times in insects and spiders, accounting for >2,000 species of myrmecomorphic arthropods. Most myrmecomorphic spiders are considered to be Batesian mimics; that is, a palatable spider avoids predation through resemblance to an unpalatable ant – although this presumption has been tested in relatively few cases. Here we explicitly examined the extent to which Peckhamia picata (Salticidae), a North American ant-mimicking jumping spider, is protected from four species of jumping spider predators, relative to nonmimetic salticids and model ants. … We found that mimetic jumping spiders were consumed less than a third as often as nonmimetic jumping spiders, suggesting that Peckhamia does indeed gain protection as a result of its resemblance to ants…

Mine is not a Myrmarachne but a Ligonipes, one of the other four genera of ant-mimicking jumping spiders occurring in Australia according to Ed Nieuwenhuys (the others being Judalana, Rhombonotus and Damoetas) but the same arguments must apply.

More arboreal ants

two ants on branch
Two ants from the first nest – a soldier (above) and a worker

Frangipanis are deciduous tropical trees with – as everyone knows – beautiful flowers, and they are deservedly popular in Townsville gardens. A few days ago I was trimming small dead branches from ours and was vividly, and almost painfully, reminded of the fact that dead branches are hollow and nature abhors a vacuum – that is, small creatures enthusiastically adopt hollow branches as nests.

The creatures in these branches were ants, and I found two different species. Two residents of the first are shown above and yes, they are big ants. The soldier must have been about 15mm long and it had a huge, heavy, big-jawed head in proportion. They weren’t just casual visitors to the branch, either, but long-term residents raising the next generation inside the hollow as I proved by knocking the branch against a post and seeing eggs fall out:

ant and eggs
A worker from the first nest trying to rescue eggs

The ants in the second nest were much smaller, perhaps 10mm long, and prettier. They were also more agitated, moving so fast that it was almost impossible to get a photo.

silver-charcoal ants
Ants from the second nest

When one of them did stop to investigate a hole it bent forward in such a way as to show off its spiny body:

ant on branch
Investigating a hole

This spines are enough to identify it as a Polyrhachis species, but (as this page shows) we have well over 100 species in that genus in Australia and I haven’t tried to narrow it down.

To answer a couple of obvious questions …

  • My reminder about vacuums was ‘almost painful’ because I very nearly got bitten by soldiers of the first nest.
  • Carpenter bees also adopt frangipani hollows as nests (this one wasn’t smart enough but will give you the idea).
  • Our other ‘arboreal ants’ are the two species which make nests by sewing leaves together – Rattle Ants (another Polyrhachis species) and the very familiar Green-ants.

A prowl around my garden

I went for a prowl around my garden on Friday morning, camera in hand, to see what bugs were around. My intention was to take photos of everything, whether I already had photos of it or not, as a way of documenting (and reminding myself) what is active at this change-of-season time.

In the event I missed a few on purpose and a few because they were too quick for me but ended up with presentable shots of 25 species. I uploaded them all to Flickr and they can be viewed as a slideshow here (if it doesn’t work for you, click here to go straight to Flickr). For information about them, enter full-screen mode and click “show info”, or click on the photo to go to the Flickr page (new window).

What did I miss?

  • I saw many of the butterflies I mentioned in my previous post but didn’t bother chasing them;
  • a hover-fly, a brown paper wasp and a black and yellow mud-dauber wasp escaped before I could get a shot;
  • I could easily have taken photos of St Andrew’s Cross, Spiny and Silver orb-weaving spiders but I know I could do that any time;
  • I didn’t photograph all the species of small dark flies I saw, because there are too many and they are too similar; and
  • By restricting my collection to that one-hour prowl I missed the Eurema butterfly, Giant Grasshopper, Neon Cuckoo Bee and swarm of tiny bees I saw later in the day.

There’s a lot of life in a garden, if only you look!

Green-ant and mealybug

Green-ant tending a lone mealybug on a fern frond
Green-ant tending a lone mealybug on a fern frond

Green ants (Oecophylla smaragdina) are a big feature of life in North Queensland. A lot of people dislike them for the very good reason that they sting but I don’t mind that too much because they are, after all, only defending themselves and they are fascinating to observe. I particularly admire the way they co-operate to make their nests.

They are among the many species of ant which have an amicable relationship with mealybugs. I don’t like mealybugs (Hemiptera, Pseudococcidae) as much as I like the ants, to be honest. Yes, I know mealybugs are only doing their best to survive, just like every other living creature, but they don’t do anything interesting and they do damage the plants they live on.

Yates Problem-solver gives the gardener’s perspective on them:

Mealybugs are small insects covered with a white mealy coating; some have white hairs attached to their bodies. The bugs feed by sucking on the plant juices. Mealybugs excrete a sticky substance called honey dew which ants like to feed on. The honeydew also provides a perfect medium for sooty mould growth. Mild temperatures and high humidity are perfect conditions for mealybugs to breed as eggs hatch every 2-3 weeks. Prolonged hot weather reduces numbers. Heavy infestations can occur on citrus trees, daphne, and other ornamental plants. Orchids and ferns, especially in shadehouses, can also become infested.

There is more on mealybugs’ life cycle and control strategies at About.com but the best reference I know – longer, more authoritative and Australian – is this one on the site of the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens.

Heading for higher ground

I started my monthly survey a couple of days ago by mentioning that it was raining …
According to the BoM, Townsville Airport had 36 mm from 9.00 a.m. Thurs to 9.00 a.m. Friday and 91 mm from then to Saturday morning. It was patchy, though, with bands of rain coming through, and we measured 125 mm here from Friday morning to Saturday morning. That turned the bottom of our yard (near the bananas, which love water) into a floodway. Genuine Wet-season rain!

It has prompted a couple of colonies of small ants to head for higher ground – more than a couple, I’m sure, but those I saw were both on my window-sill. One trail was outside the window and the other emerged from under the sill inside the room, and went up and over it to points unknown. The ants in both trails were so small that I couldn’t see they were different species until I saw my photos on screen.

Species 1

Ants carrying eggs
Ants on the outer window sill, one (foreground) carrying a larva and one with an egg

Not all of them were carrying eggs or larvae. Some were returning for a second load, while others were apparently just moving with the crowd.

Ants on window-sill
Fellow-travellers. The white one may be newly emerged

Species 2

Ants of the other species, coming from inside the wall, are more uniformly brown and I think they were a little smaller, though it’s hard to pick the difference between 2.5mm and 2mm when they are all moving as fast as they can.

small brown ants with eggs
Three ants going upwards, one with eggs, and one returning.

 

two small brown ants
The slightly larger ant looking back down the trail may be a soldier guarding the line of workers.

Seeing ants heading for high ground is a classic warning of more rain to come, of course. The BoM agrees: the Low in the Gulf is expected to become a weak cyclone in a day or so and funnel a lot more rain our way. But the Dove Orchids didn’t flower early last week to warn us, as they are supposed to … I’m losing faith in their reliability, I’m afraid. Or maybe they just can’t react to changes in humidity when the average is 99%.

Nocturnal visitors

Black and green dragonfly, family Telephlebiidae
Dragonfly attracted to house lights

We have a constant stream of nocturnal visitors.

Most of them have six legs and arrive by air.

We don’t appreciate those which would like to suck our blood (mosquitoes are a pain), but the others are welcome enough. The dragonfly above was larger and more handsome than most and didn’t mind posing for a series of photographs, although I do think he has been unduly influenced by the trend for picking grimy industrial backdrops for fashion shoots. I mean, really, there are more attractive settings than the scrap timber stored under the house.

Fawn moth on desktop
Small moth

This tiny moth, about 7 mm long, is a more typical guest, flying into the house and landing on my desk. A look at my Flickr photos reveals the bizarre moth-fly (a fly that looks like a moth, not vice-versa) on the same background a couple of months ago and this beautiful olive-green moth on the wall nearby. If I left the windows wide open and the lights on, I could have hundreds like this instead of only tens.

Just now, flying ants are common. As I said about the Green-ant queen, warmth and moisture induce the emergence of swarms of winged ants on their way (they hope) to breed and set up new colonies. The one below failed spectacularly, coming to rest on … my mouse.

Black ant, winged
Flying ant on alien artifact