Ants at Camp Tik-a-witha, Chickasaw County, Mississippi

Joe A. MacGown, Rebekah Jones, and Stephanie Larrick

            On May 30, 2006, we journeyed to Camp Tik-a-witha in Chickasaw County, Mississippi to see what species of ants we could find. This 300 acre girl scout camp, set in a beautiful forested area, looked like an ideal place to collect ants. Our resulting ant list was to complement ants discovered during the course of fire ant research done by Jack Reed and Amelia Williams, who are also in the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology at Mississippi State University. In their initial studies they collected 19 species of ants at baits and in pitfall traps.

            We followed Jack and Amelia over to the camp from MSU and arrived there at about 9:30 A.M. We pulled into an open sandy parking area just opposite of the mess hall. This area bordered a mostly deciduous forest that was situated on some very steep hills with deep ravines. While they set up some baits for their research in this area, we started visual searching for ants. The first thing we noticed was some young girl scout leaders unpacking their vehicles. It wasn't long before one of them said "hey, don't I know you" and it turned out that she was the niece of a co-worker in our department, David Cross. Well, upon seeing us, Callie told her friends that we were just bug people and not to be alarmed, and they then went about their business. The first ants we noticed were colonies of Forelius mccooki (McCook) and Dorymyrmex bureni (Trager). Both of these dominant Dolichoderine ants love open areas and we were not surprised to see them here. They both have distinctive nests with small mounds of soil above the entrance holes to their underground colonies. These two species were very common in this open area and we observed several colonies.

Nest of Dorymyrmex bureni, notice the crater-like mound of sand around the entrance hole.

            As we walked around the open area we also found colonies of Trachymyrmex septentrionalis and Pheidole bicarinata. Trachymyrmex septentrionalis nests are easy to spot as they typically have a crescent shaped mound of soil on one side of the entrance hole to the colony. These are very specialized ants that grow subterranean fungus gardens using a variety of vegetative and animal materials for a substrate.  The ants use this fungus as their primary food source. Pheidole bicarinata is another common species that we find in open areas such as pastures, roadsides, and lawns. Usually we find their nests, which often have small crater-like mound above the entrances, in bare spots that are somewhat devoid of vegetation. Our Pheidole species are dimorphic, meaning they have two different sizes and types of worker castes. The minors, or smaller workers, do much of the foraging for the colony, whereas the majors, which are much bigger, only more reluctantly leave the nest. The majors have massive heads in relation to their bodies and also have large mandibles, which they use to crack open seeds. To accurately identify Pheidole species it is useful to have a sample of both minors and majors. Because of the timid nature of the majors, they must be tempted to come out of their subterranean nests. Sprinkling crumbs of cookies (we use pecan sandies) around the entrance hole is a good way to do this. It wasn't long before some majors made their way to the cookies and then we collected a sampling of both castes. Fire ants, probably the hybrid form, Solenopsis invicta X richteri, were also seen running around the area, but in low numbers. This low density of this species was due to the fact that this area had been treated with Amdro to lessen their numbers. It seemed to be doing the job, because none of the typical large mounds were seen here, although a few small mounds were noticed. Also present running around and nesting in the open area was the little black ant, Monomorium minimum and Temnothorax pergandei.

Stephanie, checking out the vegetation for ants.

            Walking along the forest edge we noticed several of the large reddish Formica pallidefulva running around. Stephanie observed them trying to carry a large caterpillar. We assumed that they were carrying it to their colony and we observed them for several minutes so we could ascertain the location of their colony. However, the captured larva was so large that the progress of the ants was slow. We therefore introduced some cookie bait to another foraging worker, which it quickly found and rapidly carried away. We soon found the colony several feet away and excavated it. Digging into Formica colonies is always fun because the ants stream out in great masses and crawl all over you (if you area sitting or kneeling down). Although they cannot sting, they do bite and can spray formic acid, which burns the skin. We collected a good sample of this species and looked in the nest for any of a number of myrmecophiles that are associated with them. Unfortunately, we had no luck finding any myrmecophiles.
           In the same general area where we found the Formica, we also saw some Pheidole minors crawling on the ground. These minors were larger than the P. bicarinata minors, and we were hoping that they were either P. pilifera (Roger) or P. tetra Wheeler, both less common species. Minors of both of these species were collected in the study by Reed and Williams, and we really wanted to collect some majors and also find their nest sites. We put some cookie crumbs down and watched as several foraging minor workers carried the crumbs back to their colony, which was in the soil under some scattered leaves. Digging into the colony yielded many major workers, and based on the large shiny heads, it soon became apparent that they were Pheidole dentata, a very common species of Pheidole. Nearby, a colony of Aphaenogaster treatae was found in the soil just below a thin layer of leaves. This is relatively large species of Aphaenogaster that can easily be identified in the field based on its size and the lamellate lobes that are located at the base of each of the scapes (the first segment of the antenna).

        As we were collecting, a fellow who goes by the moniker of "Mr. Willie" drove up on a golf cart. Apparently he is the caretaker guy for the camp, as well as a local deputy sheriff. He talked for a while about ants, and other things, and then we got back to work.

        Workers of the primitive Hypoponera opacior were discovered just along the edge of the forest in leaf litter. These little, elongate, dark colored ants more resemble wingless wasps and it is always exciting to observe them wiggling their way through leaf litter. We collected workers of Crematogaster ashmeadi Mayr and Monomorium minimum at peanut butter bait that we had placed on some chestnut oak trees at the edge of the forest. Ants in the genus Crematogaster are often referred to as acrobat ants due their habit of arcing their gasters up backward toward the head area. These contortionists of the ant world are very common in wooded habitats.

        Walking into the forest just a bit, we saw Prenolepis imparis running about. This fast moving species is most common in the cooler months of the year and is usually much harder to find later in the summer. However, it is a common woodland species that is very dominant in the fall through early spring. Two species of carpenter ants, Camponotus americanus Mayr and C. chromaiodes Bolton, were seen running around on the forest floor and on vegetation. Camponotus americanus is easily recognizable by its yellowish-red body and blackish head, whereas C. chromaiodes may be easily confused with the black carpenter ant, C. pennsylvanicus (DeGeer). Some individuals of C. chromaiodes have large areas of reddish coloration in the mid portion of the body, in which case they can be distinguished readily from the black carpenter ant, which is mostly black overall. However, many individuals of C. chromaiodes have less red coloration and appear mostly black. Both of these species are commonly collected in the same habitats and we found both species at this camp. Their habits are somewhat different, and the black carpenter ant tends to nest in wood, whereas C. chromaiodes typically nests in the soil.

        Aphaenogaster lamellidens Mayr, another species that usually nests in rotting wood was collected in a rotting log located on a ravine in the woods. Individual workers were also collected by beating trees and shrubs. This is another largish Aphaenogaster species that is easily discernable in the field and can usually be identified by its large size, reddish coloration, and blackish colored legs. This species is very common in many wooded habitats in the southeastern U.S. Beating vegetation in the woods yielded two additional species, Lasius alienus and Camponotus snellingi. Lasius alienus makes colonies in the soil and the workers collected were probably either foraging, or perhaps tending homopterans for honeydew. Camponotus snellingi typically nest in rotting wood or in hollow stems. While collecting along the forest edge, we noticed an overwhelming abundance of millipedes that were congregating. They were on the ground in leaf litter and on trees as well. They even seemed to enjoy the peanut butter that we had put on the trees.

        While we were there we collected 6 gallon sized bags of leaf and soil litter that we took back to the lab to extract ants from in a Berlese funnel. Sixteen species were collected from the litter samples including 5 species that we had already collected by hand, and 11 species that we didn't otherwise collect. The new additions included Nylanderia faisonensis, Stigmatomma pallipes, Ponera pennsylvanica , Proceratium silaceum, Strumigenys hexamera, S. ohioensis, S. talpa, Strumigenys louisianae, Aphaenogaster fulva, Crematogaster lineolata, and Myrmecina americana. The most common species found in the litter samples was Lasius alienus and Nylanderia faisonensis, which are both very common woodland species. The next most common species was Myrmecina americana, another very common ant in forests in this area.

         After a couple of hours or so, we left the area near the mess hall and went to an area with several small cabins present. We didn't stay there long, but we did manage to see more Camponotus chromaiodes and Aphaenogaster treatae. We also collected another ground nesting species of Aphaenogaster, A. carolinensis and Nylanderia vividula , which was nesting in leaf litter.

        We spent only about 15 minutes at the cabin area and then headed down to the lake. This was a large attractive lake with a small island that could be reached by a swinging bridge. We found several species of ants here that we didn't collect at the first two spots, and several that we had already found. Two species of Formica were found here, F. dolosa and F. pallidefulva. We didn't find the F. dolosa colony, but we did find a colony of F. pallidefulva on the island, which was dug into. A rather interesting fly pupa was collected from inside the colony and taken back to the lab for rearing. It appeared to be an asilid fly pupa and it will be interesting to see if it can be reared.

Profile view of robber fly pupa collected in nest of Formica pallidefulva.

       There were plenty of the black carpenter ant running around the area, especially near the lake and boathouse area. Similar to the other areas, we also saw fire ants and little black ants. There were more fire ants in this area than in the treated area where we first collected, which was to be expected. Three species of arboreal nesting ants were collected on vegetation and included Camponotus decipiens Emery, Crematogaster pilosa Emery, and Temnothorax curvispinosus Mayr. All three of these species nest in hollow stems, grasses, galls, or in other similar situations. After collecting at the lake area for an hour or so, we called it a day and headed back to MSU to see what we had collected and get our Berlese samples going.

Rebekah, sweeping vegetation along the lake.

       Coupled with the ants collected by Reed and Williams from previous visits to the camp, 42 species of ants were collected. We collected 38 of those species during the three hours or so that we spent at the camp on 30 May, and only four species, Lasius neoniger Emery, Formica new species, Pheidole pilifera (Roger), and P. tetra Wheeler, collected by Reed and Williams were not found that day. Typically, colonies of P. pilifera have been found in Black Belt Prairie habitats in Mississippi, although they are found in other open habitats as well. Lasius neoniger is somewhat commonly found along roadsides and other open areas, and P. tetra has been collected in open areas in forested habitats in Mississippi that are quite similar to the area at Camp Tik-a-witha. The new species of Formica also nests in similar open wooded habitats. This species is superficially very similar to the other two species of Formica collected at the camp, F. dolosa and F. pallidefulva, and a paper describing this species is currently in press (Trager et al., 2007). The area where these four species were collected by Reed and Williams was scoured pretty well by us, and yet no nests were seen. It is possible that they we simply missed them, or it is possible that they were adversely affected by the fire ant treatment and that those species no longer occur at the site. They could potentially be other populations of these species elsewhere within the 300 acre camp.

       The subfamily Myrmicinae had the highest number of species represented, with 23 collected. Proportionally, Pheidole and Aphaenogaster had the highest number of species with 5 and 4, respectively. This probably represented most of the species in those genera that were likely to occur in the camp, with the exception of Aphaenogaster mariae Forel, a rather rarely collected arboreal species, that could easily occur there. Four of the myrmicine ants collected, Strumigenys hexamera, S. ohioensis, S. talpa, and S. louisianae, are members of the Dacetini tribe, and the first three Strumigenys species were only recently reported as occurring in Mississippi (MacGown et al., 2005). Strumigenys hexamera is an introduced ant from Japan, and before collections by the Mississippi Entomological Museum, this species was only known in North America from a handful of specimens from two localities in Florida and one in Louisiana. Strumigenys is the most diverse genus in Mississippi and 21 species are known to occur in the state. These soil and litter dwelling ants are common are rich wooded habitats and there are likely several more species that reside in the deciduous forests at the camp.

       The subfamily with the next highest species total was Formicinae, which includes the carpenter ants (Camponotus), the most diverse genus in the subfamily in our state. Not surprisingly, we found our highest number of species in the Camponotus genus, with 5 species, followed by Formica, with 3 species. Several other common species of Camponotus were not collected at the camp, but likely occur there, and the total number of that genus present could be as high as 13.

       The remaining species collected were distributed fairly evenly through four other subfamilies, Dolichoderinae (Dorymyrmex and Forelius), Amblyoponinae (Stigmatomma), Ponerinae (Hypoponera and Ponera), and Proceratiinae (Proceratium). The two dolichoderine species are very common, dominant ants found in open areas, whereas the others are all cryptic, litter dwelling species. Both Hypoponera opacior and Ponera pennsylvanica are very common, and are easily found throughout the state. However, Stigamatomma pallipes and Proceratium silaceum are much less commonly collected, although they are also widely distributed throughout Mississippi.

       Overall, for the small amount of time collections were made at the camp and the few areas sampled, the total of 42 species collected was high, suggesting that the camp supports a very diverse ant fauna. A more thorough examination of the entire 300 acre camp would likely increase that total greatly and it is likely that the area has 60 or more species.

List of Ants from Camp Tik-a-witha (including species collected by J. Reed and A. Williams)
(species are arranged taxonomically by genus)

Dorymyrmex bureni (Trager)
Forelius mccooki
Lasius alienus
Lasius neoniger Emery
Nylanderia faisonensis
Nylanderia vividula
Prenolepis imparis (Say)
Camponotus americanus
Camponotus chromaiodes
Camponotus decipiens
Camponotus pennsylvanicus
Camponotus snellingi Bolton

Formica dolosa Wheeler
Formica pallidefulva
Formica n. sp.
Stigmatomma pallipes (Haldeman)
Hypoponera opacior (Forel)
Ponera pennsylvanica Buckley
Proceratium silaceum Roger
Strumigenys hexamera (Brown)
Strumigenys louisianae Roger
Strumigenys ohioensis (Kennedy Schramm)
Strumigenys talpa Weber
Trachymyrmex septentrionalis (McCook)
Monomorium minimum (Buckley)
Solenopsis invicta x richteri
Solenopsis sp. cf. molesta (Say)
Aphaenogaster carolinensis Wheeler
Aphaenogaster fulva Roger
Aphaenogaster lamellidens Mayr
Aphaenogaster treatae Forel
Pheidole bicarinata Mayr
Pheidole dentata Mayr
Pheidole dentigula Smith
Pheidole pilifera (Roger)
Pheidole tetra Wheeler
Crematogaster ashmeadi Mayr
Crematogaster lineolata (Say)
Crematogaster pilosa Emery
Temnothorax curvispinosus Mayr
Temnothorax pergandei Emery
Myrmecina americana Emery

Literature Cited

MacGown, J. A., R. L. Brown, and J. G. Hill. 2005.  An annotated list of the Pyramica (Hymenoptera:  Formicidae:  Dacetini) of Mississippi.  Journal of the Kansas Entomological Society 78: 285–289. [pdf]

Trager, J. C., J. A. MacGown and M. D. Trager. 2007. Revision of the Nearctic endemic Formica pallidefulva group (Hymenoptera: Formicidae: Formicinae). In: Snelling, R. R., P. S. Ward, and B. L. Fisher (editors), Advances in ant systematics. Memoirs of the American Entomological Institute 80: 610-636