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.
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.
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).
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.
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.