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April 2017

Ant behavior tracked by tiny radio receivers in pioneering scientific study

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Researchers from the University of York are fitting one thousand northern hairy wood ants with tiny radio receivers in a world first experiment to find out how they communicate and travel between their complex nests.

The three-year research project will take place on the National Trust’s Longshaw Estate in Derbyshire a hotspot for these internationally protected ants. This unique site contains more than a thousand nests and is home to up to 50 million worker ants.

Experts will carefully catch the ants and in a few seconds attach a radio receiver of one millimetre to each one. The ants are the size of an adult thumbnail but this process will not interfere with, nor harm them in any way.

Researchers will examine how the ants communicate with each other in their colonies, which are housed in several nests connected by a network of ant highways, with multiple ant queens spread between the nests.

The findings from the research will then be used by National Trust staff on the Longshaw estate to manage the ancient woodland, made up of oak and birch trees, where the ants can be found.

Samuel Ellis, the biologist from the University of York, who will be carrying out the research, said: “This research is about trying to find out how the ants communicate and commute between the vast network of nests and how they travel in this environment.

“The radio receivers act like a barcode to mark out each individual ant. A single ant is not particularly clever but is part of an elaborate system that is clearly performing very effectively at Longshaw.

“The way the ants use this network has important implications for how they interact with their environment. And the way information is passed through the network may even have implications for our information and telecommunications networks.”

Northern hairy wood ant with one of the tiny radio receivers. Image: Changing ViewsFindings will also influence the land management of Longshaw as the ants depend on sap-sucking aphids that favour oak, birch and pine trees but northern hairy wood ant populations struggle in dense woodland of this kind.

The ants use the honeydew produced by gently stroking these aphids to feed their young and in return the ants protect the aphids.

Chris Millner, National Trust Area Ranger at Longshaw, said: “It is fascinating to sit and watch the ants as they go about their business and they are easy to spot on a sunny day as they gather in vast numbers around their nests at this very special site.

“We will be carrying out some forestry work over the next few years, removing lots of conifer trees from modern plantations which will create a larger area of wood pasture, ideal for the ants to move into.

“The study will give us a real picture of where the ants are and how we can improve the habitat for them and other wildlife without causing disturbance.”

The northern hairy wood ant has an international near-threatened conservation status with the two main populations in England found in the Peak District (including Longshaw) and in the North York Moors.

Top ten northern hairy wood ant facts

Wood ants farming aphids. Image: Changing Views

  1. Hairy wood ants (Formica lugubris) are a northern species in the UK, but can be found as far south as mid-Wales.
  2. The hairy wood ant is named so because of its hairy ‘eyebrows’ visible through a microscope.
  3. Hairy wood ants live in mound-shaped nests made out of leaves and twigs and are designed keep the nest warm by trapping heat.
  4. They can defend themselves from predators by spraying formic acid a smelly substance about as strong as vinegar which can blister the skin.
  5. Some birds such as Jays and Green Woodpeckers use this spraying to their advantage, using the formic acid as a cleansing agent to get rid of parasites.
  6. Queens can live for up to 15 years, whereas workers live for about a year.
  7. They are aggressively territorial, and will often attack and remove other ant species from the area.
  8. The wood ant is the largest native ant species of the British Isles. Workers can measure from 8-10mm in length.
  9. The ants are carnivorous and workers can find food by hunting and scavenging, they locate prey by vibration although they can see for up to 10cm.
  10. In the tree canopy Hairy Wood ants farm herds of aphids, milking them for sugar rich honeydew, and protecting them from predators. They also aggressively hunt other invertebrates.

Originally posted by: York University

New Wasp Species Discovered Parasitizing Pests of Pine Trees

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January 19, 2017 by

Baryscapus dioryctriae is a new species of wasp that parasitizes two moths of the genus Dioryctria, a pest of pine trees in China. (Photo credit: Li-Wen Song, et al)

Baryscapus dioryctriae is a newly discovered species of wasp that parasitizes—and could be a potential biological control agent of—two moth species of the genus Dioryctria, a pest of pine trees in China. (Photo credit: Li-Wen Song, et al)

By Josh Lancette

A new parasitoid wasp species, named Baryscapus dioryctriae, has been discovered in China. The new species is known to parasitize larvae of two species of Dioryctria, which are serious pests of pine trees, and was found during a survey looking for natural enemies of Dioryctria pryeri and D. abietella. This finding, published today in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America, is important because the new species could potentially be used as a biological control agent. The Dioryctria moth larvae that hurt pine trees are often concealed within the cones, making insecticides generally ineffective. An effective biological control agent such as a parasitoid wasp could provide a way to manage the pest in an environmentally-friendly manner.

Baryscapus dioryctriae appears to have the characteristics of a superior biological control agent for suppression of its hosts because of its relatively high parasitism rate, the relatively large number of wasp individuals reared from a single host pupa, and the high female:male sex ratio,” write the researchers.

Baryscapus dioryctriaeBaryscapus dioryctriaeBaryscapus dioryctriae

Furthermore, the new species appears to lend itself well to mass rearing, as the researchers successfully reared it on several other related hosts, such as the European corn borer (Ostrinia nubilalis) and the greater wax moth (Galleria mellonella).

For a complete description of the new species, see “A new species of Baryscapus (Hymenoptera: Eulophidae) parasitizing pupae and larvae of two Dioryctria species (Lepidoptera: Pyralidae),” in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America.


Josh Lancette is manager of publications at the Entomological Society of America.

Devil Frog Vomits Up a New Ant Species

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Finding new species may call to mind images of scientists tracking mysterious footprints in the mud or cutting paths through the dense jungle.

But sometimes, a discovery is as easy as getting a frog to open its mouth and say, “Ah.”

Such is the case for Lenomyrmex hoelldobleri, a new tropical ant species found in the belly of a diablito, or little devil frog (Oophaga sylvatica), in Ecuador.

The diablito, a kind of bright orange poison frog, is known for its love of ants, says Christian Rabeling, a myrmecologist at the University of Rochester, New York. The new ant species is named after Bert Hölldobler, a German evolutionary biologist and ant expert, for his 80th birthday.

Because ant-eating frogs go hunting for bugs in tiny and hard-to-access places, scientists use them as a tool to go where they can’t go. By capturing a wild frog and flushing their stomachs, the amphibians vomit whatever is in their bellies—revealing potential treasures, like the new ant.

“Sometimes people think that our world is very well explored. Nothing could be farther from the truth,” says Rabeling, who led a new study on the ant, published September 19 by the journal ZooKeys.

MYSTERIOUS ANT

Because the only known specimen of L. hoelldobleri is a dead one from a frog’s stomach, scientists know almost nothing about it.

A glimpse through a high-powered stereomicroscope at that ill-fated ant, however, has offered a few clues. (See “Watch: Ants Use Giant Jaws to Catapult Out of Death Trap.”)

“The shape of the mandibles reminds me of forceps,” says Rabeling. This may mean that the ant, which is less than a quarter of an inch long, uses its mouthparts to pry even smaller prey animals, such as termites, out of tight crevices. “But I am just speculating,” he admits.

If the scientists could find living L. hoelldobleri in the Ecuadoran rain forest, the team could submit the little guys to a “cafeteria test,” which means offering an animal multiple prey items to see what it prefers. (See “Surprising Ant ‘Mixing Bowl’ Found in Manhattan.”)

“The difficulty is finding the ants!” says Rabeling.

The little devil frog, obviously, has figured out how to locate them—and for good reason.

Poison frogs get their namesake chemical defenses from alkaloids found in the ants and other critters they consume, says Jonathan Kolby, a National Geographic grantee and director of the Honduras Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Center.

“Physiologists regard ants as mini chemical factories,” adds Rabeling. The insects likely use the chemicals as signals to communicate with other ants in their complex societies.

As for where the ants get their alkaloids, Kolby says some species may acquire it from the plants they eat. But what role, if any, L. hoelldobleri may play in the poison game is anyone’s guess.

BELLY OF THE BEAST

Because many amphibians are endangered—the International Union for Conservation of Nature lists O. sylvatica as near threatened—any research with wild frogs must be done carefully, and only by trained experts, Rabeling notes. (Read more about why amphibians are vanishing.)

 To flush the stomach, scientists insert a soft tube into the amphibian’s mouth and gently fill it with water, prompting whatever the frog has eaten recently to flow out of its mouth and onto a tray. The frog can then be safely returned to its natural habitat.

This is not the first time a new species has been found inside another animal’s stomach, by the way. Kolby points to the example of Dunn’s earth snake (Geophis dunni), which was found in the stomach of a coral snake (Micrurus nigrocinctus) in Nicaragua in 1932.

Furthermore, it seems L. hoelldobleri had some company in the little devil frog’s stomach. The research project that first identified the new ant also found several other as-of-yet undescribed insects.

It seems the little devil’s frog’s belly might be the gift that keeps on giving.

Steve McQueen and the Start of Motorcycle Madness

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by Dana

In my youth motor cycle racing was a passion. Motocross racing to be specific. The passion began in about 1969 after watching the movie The Great Escape, a World War Two film about; as you might expect, a great prisoner of war escape based upon an actual event.  In the movie, the actor Steve McQueen commandeered a motor cycle from a German combatant by stringing a wire across the road. As the German bad guy motors bye, McQueen employs the snare disembarking the rider from the bike in dramatic fashion and steals the motor bike.  McQueen proceeds to elude the German army upon this bike by riding across the country side and even jumping over fences.  How great was that.  He eventually got recaptured after crashing into a barbed wire fence and is sent back to solitary confinement along with his baseball and glove to pass the time. Steve McQueen was so cool and we all wanted to be like him. Turns out in real life McQueen raced motor cycles. As youngsters often do we emulated McQueen. Us kids would stand on opposite sides of our neighborhood street and as a car approached we would make the motion of pulling taunt a wire. The prank sometimes causing the motorist to jam on the brakes as we gleefully scattered using a predetermined escape route. When that got boring we began using real kite string.  Later we got bold enough not to even run away. When the driver angrily exited the vehicle to scorn us we would just stand there and laugh. Boldness however can escalate into extremism.  After the ‘stop cars with a string trick’ no longer generated the necessary levels of adrenaline, we invented more sinister pranks. One such delinquent act was to tie the kite string to a rock and toss it over the nearest street lamp that hung over the center of the road. The rock was than replaced with a water balloon and hoisted up. When an unexpected motorist approached, the goal was to release the string just at the right moment for the water filled balloon, assisted by the laws of gravity to drop upon the roof of the car. Kaboom! Ha Ha Ha.  Interestingly enough we executed this dirty deed within full view, in full daylight of all the picture windows of the homes lining the street. Stay at home Moms must have been more tolerant in those days. Or perhaps not, after all do parents know what children are doing on the internet today? My Mother did have limits of proper behavior however that were not tolerated. When the balloon trick no longer provided enough fun, we escalated our terror tactics by aiming pop bottle rockets at passing motorist. In one incident, our aim was too accurate.  Hidden at the side of our house one evening, as a car approached we lit the fuse, aimed and swoosh the aerial device shot through the air and into the open driver’s side window where it proceeded to bounce around the interior in a shower of sparks.  As the driver leapt from his vehicle we hastily entered into the back door of my parents’ home. There we encountered my mother, coolly waiting with her signature spanking rod. She had observed our foolish behavior.  As my friends and I bolted pass the threshold towards the basement stairs we all received a formidable whack.  Mother did not discriminate, she would wield out justice to her own sons as well as my friends whenever we crossed the line.

To advance the story, about this time the film On any Sunday was released. A documentary about motor cycle racing that also featured Steve McQueen. In those days motor cycle racing events were held on Sundays because the sport was still in its infancy and most participants were amateur enthusiasts. Before indulging how this film influenced a motorcycle passion for myself and a generation of others I must first briefly describe the geography in which I lived.  You should know we lived in the post war suburban expansion.  Our home was right on the edge of modern suburbia and rural environment. From our neighborhood north 20 miles to the city of Detroit was a nearly continuous development of suburban track homes. From our small fenced in back-yard south was rural western Michigan. We truly lived on the edge of two worlds, urban to the north and rural to the south.  Behind our back fence was woods and a drainage ditch that we interpreted as a creek, it was our playground. During the summer as kids we spent our time from breakfast until the streets lights came on, building forts, spearing carp fish in the creek, climbing trees, fighting kids from rival neighborhoods whose homes also bordered the woods, and playing games such as “two catch all” and even “torture”.  With Television programing limited and computers nonexistent we developed our own alternate reality games typically based around our limited comprehension of the great war or Cowboys and Indians.  In the game torture, a dozen or so of us  would split up into groups between the younger kids and older kids. The older kids would seek out the younger kids hiding in the woods and if caught perform Indian torture techniques, staking them to the ground and sprinkling dirt or dry weeds on exposed torsos to cause discomfort and maybe there was some red ants nearby to increase the pain. Man, that was some good times. As part of the young kids I enjoyed the adrenaline rush of not being caught. So, before I get back to the motorcycles I have to set the stage some more.  Behind the back fence as I mentioned was a forest of oak trees, maples, elms, weeds, reeds and all types of deciduous plants.  At some point the older kids had decided we needed our own personal ball park. Now you got to know in the late 60’s the baby boom era was still in full swing, there was dozens of kids on our neighborhood block and it was common for us to challenge other blocks in various sporting contests, football, street hockey, baseball, snow ball fights and any type of activity that involved competition often resulting in bloody noses and broken collar bones. Anyhow it was decided we would create a ball field out of the forest behind our homes.  We raided our parent’s garages accumulating hatchets, saws and shovels and began to chop down trees and set them on fire.  As you might imagine some of the parents became curious of our activity and began to investigate our youthful ambition.  Keep in mind were talking kids between the age of ten and fourteen who embarked upon a slash and burn technique directly behind our home.  The parents were a little concerned about our methods but to their credit did not criticize our ambition but rather instigated an alternative plan.  My next-door neighbor, Bob was a local cop.  He was the neighborhood egotist and self-proclaimed hero type, originally from Kentucky I believe.  Bob was the type of guy who would confiscate illegal fireworks from all the kids in town all year and then set them off on fourth of July for our neighborhoods enjoyment. I remember once a car sped by our home exceeding the 25-mile speed limit. Bob was in his yard working on his lawn. He jumped into his patrol car and gave chase presumably apprehending the culprit it short order.  Bob made the offender drive back to the neighborhood, park in front of his house, where he proudly wrote him the citation for all the neighbors to witness. Bob was also an expert marksman, the bar in his basement was filled with shooting competition trophy’s.  Sadly, he was once involved in a lethal shooting of a criminal that resulted in controversy.  We all feared him but also respected him.  As a bit of a trouble maker myself it was bad luck living next door to Bob. He protected his home turf with a vengeance and knew what all us kids were up too.  Bob did serve us kids well with the slash and burn project however.  He used his influence with the city, borrowed a bull dozer and spent a weekend or two clearing about two acres of forest behind our homes to create our ball field.  The parents even got together and erected a back stop using cyclone fence material to complete the project adding a touch of class.  I’m still not certain who owned that land, whether it was public domain or private but I’m rather certain no permission or permits were ascertained. No harm no foul was the rule, besides who would dare get on Bobs bad side. We had some raucous ball tournaments on that crude field but more importantly it became our local dirt bike track in the years to come.  As you recall we thought Steve McQueen and his motorcycles were so cool.  One day in 1970 I was out exploring the woods. There was a single-track trail that followed the creek for miles and we rode our bicycles along the path pretending to have motors . Suddenly three dirt bikes came screaming down the trail. They were loud and fast and the riders were dressed in black leather.  The riders were some tough kids I recognized from school, guys I went out of my way to avoid.  They entered our field and proceeded to ride around and around, kicking up dirt, creating a cloud of blue exhaust and raising general hell and chaos.  I never felt such envy in my life.  I knew right then and there my life would never be fulfilled until I had a dirt bike. My parents however would have nothing to do with me getting a dirt bike. My older brothers Mark and Tony also wanted bikes and our normal adolescent negotiating techniques were un successful. Tony who was four years my elder was nearly of adult age, eighteen in those years, and was still rebuffed by my mother who was adamantly fearful he would become a motorcycle gang member if she relented.  My father however was known for his negotiating skills and proposed a solution that was presumably in his favor.  He challenged Tony if he could find any research that proved motorcycles were safe than he could buy one.  Damn if Tony didn’t go to the library and find a book that revealed statistically that motorcycles were indeed safe. So, it came about that in 1971 Tony purchased a Suzuki 125 dirt bike.  Not long afterwards the “old man” took a spin on that bike and was grinning from ear to ear.  Shortly after, one evening he ordered Mark and I, as he often did, into the station wagon to accompany him to the store.  Typically, we would end up at the hardware store or Sears to buy needed supplies for chores.  This time to our surprise we arrived at the motorcycle dealer, where we received a firsthand lesson on negotiating and drove home with a fire engine red Suzuki 90 to share.  Of course, it was learned quickly that two competitive brothers willing to in Hockey terms “drop the gloves” at any moment to solve disputes could not share a dirt bike and so it came to be that Mark was soon a proud owner of his own Wombat 125 dirt bike machine.

I cannot begin to describe the joy of being a 12-year-old with your own dirt bike and outside the gate of your backyard was an endless forest with trails. We rode every day after school and on weekends venturing off to the motocross track several miles away.  The track was located on some vacant corporate property not far from the new Detroit Metropolitan Airport. There was a large sandy area where a track developed surrounded by woods.  I don’t recall who owned the property but they apparently didn’t mind that it became a major dirt bike destination.  In those days, no one would have even thought about suing the owners upon injury, such an action would be simply too dishonorable.  We and dozens of other kids spent many of hours and days racing each other on that track.  The biggest problem with this informal race track however was riding there without getting busted by the cops. Much of the route was within the camouflage of several woods along the way however there were several stretches that required riding along the shoulder of a major roadway where we were vulnerable to the adjacent cities police department. The first few times we were spotted by the cops was scary, they would signal us to stop and when disobeyed by us, give chase. In time, we became defiant and comfortable, waving at them before darting into the protection of the next woods.  This behavior of course pissed off the Officers obliged to enforce the law.  They eventually learned are routine and tried to set up ambushes against us that failed to achieve desired results.  Eventually their investigation revealed what neighborhood we originated from and one day showed up at our home to interrogate my mother. Mom, who by this time was onboard with the motorcycle fun defended us essentially telling the overreaching cops to stay on their own side of the tracks and find more worthy criminals to pursuit.

About this time, the town was building a new middle school a mile or so south of our home.  They cleared away part of the woods for the construction site.  We would ride up to the site and climb the massive hill of dirt that was formed from excavation work, again eluding the authorities and the heavy equipment operators we furiously irritated.  The school opened at the beginning of my seventh-grade year in school and my friends and I could ride our motorcycles along the creek trail to the school yard.  The shop teacher, who owned a classic Norton motorcycle himself was ok with us parking them outside his class room.  The principle however had a different idea about that arrangement.  So, there you have it, my little story of how I began a decade long passion for a two-wheeled machine.  Not Pulitzer Prize material by any means but maybe you enjoyed it and hopefully it loosened some memories of your own wondrous youth.