Invasive Ant Meeting and Australian ant researcher visits MEM!

The last two weeks have been jam-packed with Invasive Ant work. From 16 through 18 May,  MSU Entomologist David Cross and I (Joe MacGown) attended the Imported Fire Ant and Invasive Ant Conference in Mobile, AL along with researchers from as far away as New Zealand and Australia.

fire ant meeting poster

We both stayed in Mobile on Friday, May 19, to participate in the Tawny Crazy Ant Working Group Meeting where we discussed future research, publications, and outreach. One of the primary reasons I attend conferences is to network with other researchers, and this conference was no exception.

Invasive ant photo group

Group photo of most of the participants at the conference (I missed photo op, was out collecting)

Antonette Walford, senior entomologist with the Quarantine Unit at the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources in Melbourne, Australian joined us for this meeting and also came along for some local ant collecting. Mobile is an ideal location for an invasive ant meeting because this port city is thought to have been the entry point for several key invasives, including the imported fire ants!! It only took a few minutes of walking from the hotel before David and I found nine invasive ant species including Brachymyrmex patagonicus (Dark Rover ant), Cyphomyrmex rimosus (fungus ant), Odontomachus haematodus (trapjaw ant), Paratrechina longicornis (longlegged crazy ant), Pheidole navigans (Navigating big headed ant), Pheidole obscurithorax (Obscure big headed ant), Pseudomyrmex gracilis (Mexican twig ant), Solenopsis invicta (Red Imported Fire Ant), and Tapinoma melanocephalum (Ghost ant).


The Mexican twig ant (also called the graceful twig ant) 

On Wednesday, an Auburn researcher named Jeremy Pickens took David Cross, Antonette Walford (Australia), Jason Williams (grad student at the University of Florida), Viv Van Dyk (New Zealand), John Van Dyk (New Zealand), Bridget Brown (videographer), and me to a couple of sites where Nylanderia fulva (the  Tawny  crazy ant) had been found. The ants were not abundant at the first site, but we found plenty at the second site! This species typically peaks in the late fall, and I was somewhat surprised to see relatively large numbers of ants this early in the year! We then headed to the site where David and I had collected earlier in the week so the group could collect some other invasive species from the region. All in all, it was a very productive afternoon.


Friday’s Tawny crazy ant working group seemed to have more participants this year than in previous years, which was not surprising given the serious pest status of this species. We covered many topics from web pages, data entry, where to store vouchers,  outreach, possible publications, a video series about the ants, and other similar things. Fudd Graham from Auburn University in Alabama, who was in charge of the meeting, had arranged for a media crew to film some of us for the educational videos the group will be developing. I covered sections on identification, geographic spread, behavior, biology, and related topics.

Ant jokers

Some of the Tawny crazy  ant working group folks – From left: Anne Marie Calcott, Jeremy Pickens, Antonette Walford, Fudd Graham, Joe MacGown, David Oi, and David Cross. 

Following the meeting, David and I headed back to MSU, and Antonette followed us back to work with me for a week for an intensive ant identification workshop. In fact, this workshop was the primary reason for Antonette’s visit to the USA. Invasive species are a huge concern for Australia, and Antonette is responsible for identification of the ants. Here in the USA, we have quite a few invasive species that are unwanted in Australia! During her time here at MSU, Antonette identified specimens she had collected and some from our museum for practice using a variety of keys, images, and looking at identified species; became familiar with various online and other published resources; learned about some of the collecting methods I routinely use; and ate lots of great southern food!

Overall, I think Antonette had a productive and pleasant visit both in Mobile, AL and in Starkville, MS with seeing fireflies perhaps being the highlight! Antonette left MSU excited and motivated to learn her local ant fauna better and to create identification guides for select ant groups in her region. Before heading back to Australia, she will work with David Oi in Gainesville, FL for a few days.

antonette Refuge

Antonette Walford at Loakfoma Lake at the Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge in Mississippi





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Life of a Student Worker in the Mississippi Entomological Museum

By Margaret Harris (Mississippi State undergraduate student, student worker in the MEM)

When I first was hired to work for the department, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. All I was told is that I would be pinning ants and potentially taking pictures. The taking pictures part was what first drew me in because I had just gotten a new camera, but on my first day I learned that my definition of taking pictures was different than the departments. I will be honest, the idea of pinning ants for 2-3 hours a day did not make me jump for joy but after a month of working in the department, I have come to enjoy my 2-3 hours a day with the ants.

I have an assigned workstation in the museum which consists of a microscope and computer to type labels on. I also have my supply box that has all the necessary tools used to pin and point the ants. Supplies needed to pin are Elmer’s glue, pins (size 3), forceps, triangle shaped points that are about the size of my fingernail, and the box that hold the pinned ants.


Basic supplies needed to pin ants

The boxes that hold the pinned ants are placed in a special drawer that helps keep them from being obscured from outside objects. The drawers can hold 8 boxes. Once a drawer is filled, the boxes will then be sorted and placed in a special order. The drawers will then be placed in a specific category in one of the museum cabinets.

The job itself tends to be tedious depending on what needs to be done. Different sized ants have different levels of difficulty of pinning. The big ants are easy to place on the point but tend to slide off due to their large size, which can be annoying. Small ants tend to be the most difficult to place just because of their size. Most are usually less than half a centimeter in length. Because of this placing the point in the right position takes skill and patience. Medium ants are my favorite because they are literally just the right size and can be pinned quickly.


Small ant


Medium ant


Big ant

Once ants are pinned, they all must be individually labeled. This is completed using Microsoft Word. The labels are typed in Helvetica font, size 4. So yeah extremely small. Once the labels are typed, they are then printed with waterproof ink on a special sheet of paper that is alcohol proof. The labels are then hand-cut and placed under each individual pinned ant. Both jobs seem boring and time consuming, but I tend to find them relaxing. Mainly because even though my full attention is required to avoid mistakes, they are still simple tasks. The space where I work is relaxing as well because there is not much commotion or noise which helps me to focus, relax, and get the job of the day done.

That is the last step of pinning ants other than organizing them. The pinned ants are used for research in the department. After I started working here is when I realized the true importance of what I do. Ants can cause many problems including foundation issues. To help contain these problems, the cause of the problems (ants) must be researched and studied to produce a solution which is what the department is working towards.

(For more info on pinning ants:

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Tawny crazy ants spreading in the southeastern US

Tawny crazy ants, Nylanderia fulva, are big time news these days. This species has been causing serious nuisance problems in Texas and  Florida for 15 years plus and has been continually spreading to more counties in those states each year.  Other southern states are not exempt from the spread of this species. Since 2009, the tawny crazy ant has been reported from  Alabama (Mobile County), Georgia (six counties),  Louisiana (numerous parishes), and Mississippi (Hancock, Harrison, and Jackson Counties). It seems likely that this species will soon find its way into South Carolina, as it has already been found in  bordering Chatham County, Georgia.


Nylanderia fulva, the tawny crazy ant, lateral view of a worker collected in Georgia

Whenever you have populations of an invasive insect numbering in the billions in your yard, you can expect trouble. The fact that these ants are apparently attracted to electricity compounds the problem. Its bad enough being inundated with billions of pesky ants, but having them short out your electricity is just too much!  They are difficult to control because of their sheer abundance coupled with the numerous queens that they produce. This species can easily be moved from location to location as stowaways in vehicles, plants, wood, trash, hay, or pretty much anything that they can nest in temporarily. Really, all it takes is one fertilized queen to start a new colony.


Nylanderia fulva, lateral view of  a dealate queen collected in Hancock County, MS

One big question is how far north and west will this species travel. Since it is a semi-tropical to tropical species, one would logically assume its northward progress would be stymied by cold weather. In fact, at this time, researchers are doing cold tolerance tests on these ants to try to predict northward movement based on climatic conditions. This may be helpful, or may not be. Consider the introduced red imported fire ant, Solenopsis invicta, which has defied the predictions of experts in its continued spread. The problem is that ants are very adaptable. Not to mention that there may be something to that global warming deal. Go figure. Nevertheless, these ants will likely have a northern limit. Does that mean we can control them? Well, if history is any indication, probably not. The more likely scenario is that huge populations of this, and other invasive ant species, will continue to spread, then gradually, populations will drop back down. Another introduced species will come in, follow a similar pattern, and so forth.


Nylanderia fulva workers with brood. 

So, what do we do? Well, we do the best we can. First of all, many of our invasive ant species take advantage of our bad habits. One of the worst things that we do in our attempts to change the planet, is to destroy or greatly disturb natural habitats to the point where native ant species are negatively impacted. Many species are sensitive to disturbance, and can no longer live in these disturbed habitats. What is a disturbed habitat, one might ask? Basically, a habitat that is no longer natural. Think – parking lots, roads and roadsides, parks, lawns, suburban lots, railways, managed pine plantations, or really anywhere that has been impacted by mankind. When a natural habitat is disturbed to the point where native species can longer exist there, a void is created. This is an ideal situation for an alien species that has an ecology that allows it to live in marginal habitats. If such a species is introduced and conditions are suitable, it may thrive with absence of competitive native species and with the lack of natural predators.

Secondly, alien species don’t usually get here by themselves. Typically, they are brought in by humans inadvertently through international commerce, then further moved about from state to state and locally within states. All of  this is compounded by global warming, which is allowing species once relegated to tropical locales to thrive in some regions in the US.

We are here, and the ants are here. What do we do? Some type of equilibrium must be achieved. We cannot control all ants. We cannot kill them all. The best we can hope to accomplish is to find a way to live in harmony with these creatures. Second to that, we need to at least keep them out of our homes, businesses, and other structures. This is the more realistic option. Crazy ants are particularly difficult to control, so doing it on your own is next to impossible, unless you want to saturate your immediate environment with poison. Nobody wants that. If you have crazy ants, call a professional! If you are unsure if you have crazy ants, kill a few, put them in a small container, and mail them to a professional to be verified. Mail them to me if you like.

If you do have them, please be careful and try not to transport them elsewhere.

Good luck.

Read more about tawny crazy ants at my page on the MEM’s Southeastern Ants Site at

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Exotic Ants in Mississippi – species pages

As time permits, I try to put together a species page or two about ants here in the Southeast on my Ants of the Southeastern United States website. As it happens, I currently have a wonderful research associate, Ryan J. Whitehouse,  helping out with our ant work this year, which means we are making some progress. I decided to prioritize our list of exotic ant from Mississippi as many of these species are pests. We currently have 30 exotic species in the state, almost 17% of the total 188 species we know about.

Read more about the exotic species in Mississippi at my page: Exotic Ants of Mississippi.

Strumigenys membranifera, lateral view of worker

Strumigenys membranifera, lateral view of worker

Strumigenys membranifera, full face view of worker

Strumigenys membranifera, full face view of worker

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Collecting ants at Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve in Colbert County, Alabama

The southeastern US is home to many fascinating ants.  Although some folks may be unaware of it, we have numerous unique habitats here in our region, and MEM staff members make it a habit of collecting in as many of these as possible. The Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve, located in Colbert County, Alabama, is one of these wonderful spots. The preserve is privately owned by Jim and Faye Lacefield, who graciously allow visitors and researchers to the site.  This preserve is 700+ acres of rocky, sloped hardwood forests with numerous waterfalls, creeks, rock overhangs and shelters, and large boulders present.

a view from a high point

a view from a high point

Coworker James Lewis and I visited this area this past March and again in early June after hearing rave reviews about it by our bud Paul Davison, a biology professor at the University of North Alabama. And, we were not disappointed! The preserve is beautiful in every sense of the word, and host to many unique plants and insects. Not only that, they even have a cabin available for researchers to stay in. Hard to beat!

James Lewis

James Lewis

Taking a break

Taking a break

Our first visit in late March was mostly one of convenience, rather than optimal collecting weather, as it was unseasonably cold. Despite this, we managed to collect a few species. However, our return trip on June 2nd was much more productive and we ended up with 40 species of ants in total (listed below)! For a more complete log of our collecting at Cane Creek Canyon, visit the Ants of Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve web site.

Some photos from our March trip. Even the trees look cold!

Some photos from our June trip, much warmer and greener!

List of ant species collected at Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve (arranged alphabetically by genus) Aphaenogaster carolinensis (Wheeler) Aphaenogaster fulva Roger Aphaenogaster lamellidens Mayr Brachymyrmex depilis Emery Camponotus snellingi Bolton Crematogaster ashmeadi Mayr Crematogaster lineolata (Say) Crematogaster minutissima Mayr Discothryea testacea Roger Formica dolosa Buren Formica pallidefulva Latreille Formica subsericea Say Hypoponera opacior (Forel) Monomorium minimum (Buckley) Myrmecina americana Emery Nylanderia faisonensis (Forel) Nylanderia querna Kallal and LaPolla Nylanderia vividula (Nylander) Pheidole bicarinata Mayr Pheidole dentata Mayr Pheidole dentigula Smith Pheidole tysoni Forel Ponera pennsylvanica Buckley Prenolepis imparis (Say) Proceratium crassicorne Emery Proceratium pergandei (Emery) Solenopsis carolinensis Forel Stigmatomma pallipes (Haldeman) Strumigenys angulata Smith Strumigenys clypeata Roger Strumigenys louisianae Roger Strumigenys ohioensis Kennedy & Schramm Strumigenys ornata Mayr Strumigenys rostrata Emery Strumigenys talpa Weber Trachymyrmex septentrionalis (McCook) Temnothorax curvispinosus Mayr Temnothorax pergandei Emery Temnothorax schaumii Roger Trachymyrmex septentrionalis (McCook)

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South Carolina Anting

A couple of weeks ago the Mississippi Entomological Museum staff headed to South Carolina for the annual William H. Cross Expedition.  This expedition is a commemorative trip of sorts honoring William H. Cross (1928-1984) who devoted much of his professional life to studying the geographic distribution and morphological and ecological variation of arthropods. Dr. Cross was instrumental in founding the Mississippi Entomological Museum in 1979, and he served as its unofficial director for a year. The William H. Cross Expedition Fund was created following Dr. Cross’s death while on a collecting trip in Mexico, and the fund has been endowed in the Mississippi State University Development Foundation through private donations.

This year’s journey took place in Cheraw State Park and Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Chesterfield County, SC during 8-13 July 2013. The habitat here was predominately longleaf pine forest with scattered scrubby turkey oak sandhill habitat. Of course, our collecting was not centered around just ants, but, since this is an ant blog, I will confine my longwinded writings to the Formicidae collected during this trip.

During the trip, JoVonn and I were certainly the most serious about collecting ants, but Terry Schiefer also picked up some nice species such as Pseudomyrmex ejectus and P. pallidus while beating trees and shrubs. In addition to our typical ant collecting methods, I also snagged several species at blacklights including the likes of Camponotus obliquus. 

In total, we collected 55 species of ants, which I thought was pretty good considering we basically collected them in only about three days and nights. We spent all day Monday driving to SC and all day Saturday driving home. So throw those days out. It rained a bunch Thursday and Friday, and even quite a bit Tuesday afternoon. Of these species, three were new for the state including Lasius murphyi, Pheidole floridana, and Ponera exotica!

The most common ant that we found was Pachycondyla chinensis, the Asian needle ant. This introduced species was pretty much everywhere. Nests were in leaf litter, in and under logs, under debris, and in the soil. Winged females and males were common at the blacklights as well. I was stung by several females at a blacklight on our first night of collecting. NOT FUN! The burning sensation from the stings lasted 30-45 minutes. Solenopsis invicta, the red imported fire ant, was also common here.

Some cool ants that we collected included Formica subintegra, a slave making species that was raiding a colony of F. subsericea.  JoVonn found workers of the  army ant Neivamyrmex carolinensis foraging near the Malaise trap. Pretty cool. I collected Proceratium pergandei in leaf litter right behind the cabin. Also, I found several colonies of the big headed ant Pheidole crassicornis nesting in open areas in the park, including right beside the cabin.

Anyway, lots of ants in a short period of time. Check out the entire list at [link].

Upon returning from the Cross Trip, I had an email from a South Carolina resident who thought he had collected Pseudomyrmex gracilis from the state, a new record. He sent me the specimen and data, and it was indeed, this species. Cool.

For the complete list of South Carolina ants, check out my site here [link].

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Joe MacGown on Animal Planet’s Infested talking about crazy ants

Hairy crazy ants (tawny crazy ants) are in the international media once again. A segment of an episode of “Infested” is currently airing on the Animal Planet network. I was interviewed this past fall for the show. Episodes on Infested are not meant to be scientific studies, but rather dramatizations showing worst case scenarios of various pest species of animals. However,  in this case, the producers did a pretty good job of not exaggerating the problems posed by crazy ants, and in general the show was fairly accurate scientifically. This species of ant, now know to be Nylanderia fulva, a South American species, is indeed a serious pest. Extremely high populations cause serious nuisance issues, reduce biodiversity, and commonly short out electrical equipment. Learn more about the crazy ant at the MEM ant site [link].

The format of Infested shows features interviews with homeowners and specialists (in this case, me) and reenactments featuring Canadian actors who resemble the actual people involved.

This episode can still be viewed on the Animal Planet network, or can be viewed online at:  “

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Mississippi Entomological Museum Ant Collection Continues to Expand

The Mississippi Entomological Museum ant collection continues to expand due to lots of collecting by the MEM Staff, donations and exchanges with wonderful collectors from across the United States, screening of various traps run by APHIS, and retention of borrowed material.

Notable donations from the last few years include ants collected from the Smokey Mountains and southern MS (including Horn Island) by Tim Lockley (MS); cavity nesting species collected from various locales by Rick Duffield (MD); and ants collected in Arkansas by Dave General and Lynn Thompson (truckload of vials). Smaller donations have by made by numerous collectors such as Heath Richter (Mobile, AL); Doug Booher (Athens, GA); Matt Blaine; Mark Deyrup (Archbold Biological Station, FL); Julian Relasco (Gainesville, FL); Michael Skvarla (AR); Paul Davison (AL); Jian Chen (Stoneville, MS); Stoy Hedges; and a bunch of other awesome ant collectors!

Additionally, we are building up large quantities of ants in vials from APHIS collections that our screened by MEM staff. This includes material from across the Southeast, but especially from MS, AL, and KY.

Exchanges have been quite useful as well and this past year we obtained some exquisitely pinned material from the western US  from Robert Hamton (CA). Of course, numerous specimens have been retained from various institutions and/or researchers who either loaned us material or had me identifying material for them.

The influx of material is impossible to keep up with, but gradually is and will be looked at and incorporated into the collection.

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New ant blog about southeastern ants.

Well, I decided to start a blog about ant of the Southeast. Why not, I have lots of info.


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