Friday, September 5, 2014

The Ant Word

WHAT’S NEW: last update 05/09/2017 [click here] 

STOP PRESS!  Go HERE to order our great new field guide, ANTS OF SOUTHERN AFRICA, in press and for immediate delivery by airmail or courier ... 


We’ve put this website together to help anyone interested in the natural systems of South Africa to identify these tiny but fascinating animals. There’s more about recognizing ants in the pages below, with some fairly basic stuff about these insects and their biology. Our ants are as much a part of our fantastic wildlife heritage as lions and rhinos, fish eagles and blue cranes, mighty yellowwoods and king proteas. The ecological role they play is immensely important for the health of our natural systems. Ants are essential seed-distributors to thousands of charismatically-beautiful fynbos plants; they are pollinators and recyclers, too, and also vectors in the spread of many plant predators. However, just as there are plant invaders that threaten our natural systems there are insect invaders, too, and we’re keeping an eye on some pretty murderous invasive ants. The problem is, no one involved in ecological study or conservation in South Africa really knows where these invaders are, or how widespread they are. The Iziko Museums list of South African ants, for example, only places the serious pest, the Argentine ant [see below], in the Western Cape, Eastern Cape and Gauteng; yet they are all over the Northern Cape towns of Nieuwoudtville and Calvinia. What’s more, both these towns enjoy temperature extremes in winter and summer. Popular wisdom has it that Argentine ants do not survive such extremes – yet there they are! 

If you have any info, queries or comments please use the Comments box below. We are still working on the illustrations of the various ants and finding better ways of presenting them, so you might find something new every time you revisit this site. The first edition of our Field Guide, ANTS OF SOUTHERN AFRICA, is in print [see above].
The Argentine ant – Linepithema humile – is one of the most devastating invasive organisms on Earth. It may pose a very serious threat to the health of our fynbos and other ecosystems ... but do we know where they all are?

Ant Atlassing

This is only a proposal at this stage, and it may or may not get off the ground. In the meantime you can do your bit by gathering data on the distribution of species wherever you go – see ‘Collecting ants for identification’ in the next page of this site. Seriously, just a few observations from your latest hike, camp, picnic or what’s in your garden will help enormously towards mapping the distribution of ants ...

About Ants; and Collecting ants for Identification

Ants are essentially a family of insects descended from wasps, and sharing many characteristics with them. However, they have many ‘stand alone’ features that all ants, and only ants, share. 
All ants could be described as Liverpool football supporters – they Never Walk Alone. Whereas there are several solitary bees, wasps and sawflies, their fellow-members of the insect order Hymenoptera, all ants are social and, if you find one, there are others from the same nest somewhere nearby.
All the worker ants you’ll ever see are females. Most male ants have short, idyllic lives, where they are born, hang around the nest being pampered and fed, and then flying out to find young females (‘alates’) to mate with. And having mated, they die.
Their sisters are the workers, and they usually have a queen or several queens who do all the reproductive work, although there are species of ants where there are no queens and a worker or workers take on the reproductive role.

The eggs are small and creamy-yellow or sometimes pinkish. They hatch into blind, legless larvae that are completely helpless, and unless constantly fed and groomed by their sisters they die. As with most insects the larvae are a stage in the animals’ metamorphosis, and in due course they pupate. In some sub-families the pupae are naked; in others the larvae spin cocoons and pupate inside them. Finally, when metamorphosis is complete the adult ants emerge from the pupal state or, in the case of those in cocoons, their adult sisters have to tear open the cocoons to let them out. 
The queens are normally larger than the workers, with a distinctly larger thorax which holds the wing-muscles for their flying stage. The queens of the Red Driver ant, however, look quite different and are illustrated on that page.

Ants reproduce their colonies in two main ways:
1. By nuptial flights. The winged female and male reproductives fly out of the parent nests and, on meeting one of the opposite sex from a different colony, they mate. The male dies; the female (now a queen ant) drops her wings and finds a sheltered place for the new colony. She lays a few eggs and when these hatch she raises them to become the first workers of the new colony. She does not eat during this time, living off her fatty reserves supplied from her now-redundant wing muscles. Nests established in this way are highly nationalistic and usually hostile to all other ants, including their own species.
The whole nuptial flight process is extremely dicey and the chances of failure are extremely high.
2. By budding. There is more than one reproductive queen in the nest. When a good food source is discovered, some of the extra queens migrate out with the workers and start a new branch of the colony at the food supply. The colony remains interlinked and its members are accepted by all branches. The colonies can grow into enormous super-colonies spread out over many miles, and with countless trillions of individuals.

Ant Anatomy

Every scientific discipline loves its jargon, and entomology is no different. We’ve tried to keep the language simple in this website but there are a few terms you need to know. Ants’ bodies are substantively different from mammals and they have body parts that don’t have convenient common names. The drawing should make most of this clear. There are other parts with names but these are the most important.

Collecting ants for identification

We strongly advise users to sign up to iSpot, a great way to get your ants identified, or to help others ID their photos. You can sign up here

Although we have tried to convey the colour, shape and something of their habits in our illustrations of the various ant species below, if you’re serious about learning how to identify them there is no substitute for collection and examination. Ants are usually very, very small animals, however, and in order to examine them you’re going to need a good hand lens or, even better, a mini-microscope to be able to see their full range if identifying features.

Hand-held mini-microscopes of 60x magnification are very useful. The microscopes have powerful LED lights and use pill-batteries. 
The microscopes are unfortunately no longer available from me, but you might find them in a gadget shop.
There are two other essential items you will need. One is a drinking straw [or a few straws of different diameters] with a gauze filter securely taped over one end. The other is a supply of small Ziploc® bags. When you go out collecting you might want to unzip your bags before you start, as you often have to move fast to catch your ant and the bags sometimes resist opening at the wrong moment. 

With the gauze-covered end of the straw in your mouth, quickly suck up the ants and blow them gently into the bag; quickly zip it up making sure that there are no ants caught on the zip. Remember at all times that ants are small, fragile creatures and your enormous fingers – compared to an ant – will surely damage them; blowing them into the bag too hard may also injure them.
Bothroponera pumicosa in the bag! Once trapped in the plastic you can study the animal at your leisure with your mini-microscope
When the ants are in the bag it’s easy to study them with the mini-microscope, often most conveniently by holding the bag against a white notebook page and holding it up to your eye. The sides of the bag pin the ant down without squashing it. If your ants are hot they will move very fast; it’s often best to take them home and put the bags into the fridge for an hour or so. This won’t kill them but it will slow them down. You can use the sections below to try to identify your ants, or you can try the iSpot key to Western Cape Ants. Finally, if all else fails the ants in the bag can also be easily posted away for identification, and you are welcome to send them to P Slingsby at P.O.Box 303, Muizenberg 7945. I’m always looking for ants to draw and yours will be most welcome, even if ‘dead on arrival’. In fact it’s best to kill the ants before sending them; the most humane method is to put them, bag and all, in your freezer for a few minutes.

Identify ants: Key with links

1. See our comprehensive Catalogue of all the species which have appeared on iSpot, with illustrations and/or links to pics of more than 100 species

2. For a brand-new illustrated key to the 68 Southern African genera [still being developed] go here

3. Scroll down through the illustrations in the links below. These have been arranged more or less in order of size, from smallest to largest. Click on the species name for more info about that species, or on the Sub-Family name for more info about the sub-family.

KEY: 1. Ants that are less than 5 mm long

4. All ants are classified into sub-families; within each of these the various genera and species share certain common characteristics. You can find out more about each sub-family by clicking on these links (these are not the only sub-families that exist, but are the only ones dealt with on this site so far):
Ponerinae (the ‘Primitive’ or Ringbum ants)
Pseudomyrmecinae (the Slender ants)
Dorylinae (the Army or Driver ants)
Aenictinae (the False Army ants)
Dolichoderinae (the Smelly ants)
Myrmicinae (the Double-waisted ants)
Formicinae (the Elegant, Acid-Squirting, Pugnacious or Sugar ants)

5. For a detailed Bayesian Key go here

Myrmecochory: ant distribution of seeds

Myrmecochory (literally ‘ant borne’) is a process whereby certain plants ensure the survival of their species after a fire. The seeds or fruits of literally hundreds of fynbos plants have a fleshy covering or attachment that acts as an ‘elaiosome’ or ant-attractant. When the seeds fall to the ground certain ant species, especially ants of the genus Anoplolepis (Pugnacious ants) rush to the seeds, attracted by pheromone-imitating scents. The ants sink their jaws into the soft, fleshy covering and tug the seeds into their nests, where the sweet-tasting reward is consumed. The hard, smooth nuts that are left cannot be gripped by the ants’ tiny mandibles, and so remain buried in their nests, safe from fire and animal predators. The seeds’ longevity is also enhanced by the anti-bacterial and fungicidal substances which the ants secrete to keep their crowded nests healthy. The fruits of Mimetes, Leucospermum, Paranomus and several other Proteaceous genera, all the Buchus or Rutaceae, many legumes and scores of other genera are involved in this important ecological process.
Serotinous fynbos plants have a creaky way of surviving fire, says William Bond. Serotiny means that they don’t release any seed until they’re burnt. When the plants die, the seed is released from cones or other structures. This works well unless the fire-interval is too short. If a second fire occurs before a population of serotinous proteas or other plants has matured, the species will become locally extinct. There is no safe seed store, and the species has to repopulate the area from outside—if it can. To achieve this it has to produce lots of seeds that can be carried for many miles on the wind, a pretty random process.
The re-emergence of Mimetes stokoei, thought to be extinct for nearly fifty years, dramatically demonstrates the success of myrmecochory, especially for large-seeded plants. Using ants to store seed safely in the ground is a process that is 180̊ different from serotiny. The seed does not have to travel at all, it drops straight to the ground and is buried by ants within a few minutes in the same optimal soil as its parent. These plants need to produce fewer seeds, because the chance of successful regeneration after fire is much less random. There is a safe underground seed store and not all the seeds germinate after each fire. A very short interval between two fires may have no effect. Finally, we now know that such seeds can remain viable for long periods—probably a century or longer. Tiny populations of rare species can survive in specialised habitats, apparently indefinitely—which is good news for the future of fynbos diversity. 

Mimetes stokoei

The unusual case of the extremely rare Mimetes stokoei shows how sustained interest by careful and dedicated observers over many decades can be very rewarding. If, for example, a common Leucospermum had disappeared from that habitat for over fifty years, it might not have been noticed —unlike in the case of the Mimetes. The longevity of its seeds would never have been recorded.

Invasive ants such as the Argentine ant – Linepithema humile – massively disrupt these processes. They not only completely eliminate most of the indigenous ants involved in myrmecochory, they don’t bury the affected seeds. They merely eat the elaiosomes off in situ, leaving the seed unburied and unprotected, at the mercy of rodents, birds, etc. Preliminary studies have shown that if the spread of these ants into wild habitats is not checked, the future of thousands of fynbos plant species will be at risk.

Fynbos plants that rely upon ants

A selection of the huge range of fynbos plant species that rely upon ants for effective distribution of their seeds ... we’ll add to these from time to time.

1. Plants that rely on ants to distribute their seeds:

Ants vs Termites: the Soul of the White Ant

Ever since Eugene Marais wrote ‘The Soul of the White Ant’, public perception has lumped ants and termites together as sharing some kind of commonality. Overseas scientists did not help, either. Marais preferred to write in Afrikaans and his work was translated into various international languages either late in his life or after his death. His book “Soul of the White Ant” was plagiarised by Nobel laureate Maurice Maeterlinck, who published “The Life of the White Ant”
in 1926, falsely claiming many of Marais’ revolutionary ideas as his own. Maeterlinck was able to do this because he was Belgian and, though his mother tongue was French, he was fluent in Dutch, from which Afrikaans was derived. It was common at the time for worthy articles published in Afrikaans to be reproduced in Flemish and Dutch magazines and journals.
Marais contemplated legal action against Maeterlinck but gave up the idea in the face of the costs and logistics involved. He needn’t have bothered: Maeterlinck chose a bad title to plagiarise, leaving his reputation in tatters on two counts. 
Ants and termites are both insects, but that’s about where it ends. Lumping them together is a bit worse than putting golden moles and baboons into the same mammalian nest.
So what’s different? Termites, like ants, live in large colonies in the earth or in wood. The individual workers are generally sterile, and the queen lays all the eggs. Their winged reproductives go on nuptial flights, when they're often known as ‘flying ants’. Termites sometimes have major and minor workers, too, but that's where it ends. Whereas ants [and bees] are related to wasps, termites have their roots in cockroaches, and almost everything else about them differs from ants – see chart below.

Bibliography and links: read more about ants

mostly under construction: much more to come here

Websites recommended:

Papers and further reading:

Review of Anoplolepis ... and notes on Acropyga – A J Prins, Annals of the SA Museum, June 1982

Characterization of an Acropyga arnoldi mating swarm and early stage colony founding behaviour
LaPolla and Spearman, 2007

Taxonomy of Ponerine genus Hypoponera
Bolton & Fisher, 2011

The Genus Hagensia Forel
George Arnold, May 1951

Ant imitators: don’t be fooled!

Ants are amongst the most successful of all insects, so it’s hardly surprising that a large number of other goggas imitate them. There are a large number of beetles, spiders and even wingless wasps that pretend to be ants. Some do it to avoid being eaten themselves [ants don’t generally taste very nice, unless you’re an ant-eater]. Others do it because they prey on ants, and by pretending to be one amongst friends they can avoid being torn apart themselves. Arthropods that mimic ants are technically known as myrmecomorphs.

Wasp myrmecomorphs

Wasps and ants belong to the same order of insects [Hymenoptera] with essentially similar body-shapes, so it may not be all that surprising that there are many convincing ant-mimics amongst the wasps. However, some wingless wasps are just that, and despite the lack of wings they don’t resemble any specific ants at all. Our first subject here, however, was collected on the wall of the Oudebosch office, where we initially mistook it for an Argentine ant, so convincing was the mimicry. That said, it seems odd that a local wasp could mimic an invasive ant, so it is possibly imitating a Pheidole instead.
You can always tell wasps from ants by the antennae, if nothing else. Wasps’ antennae form a smooth curve of more-or-less equal segments on a short scape, whereas ants all have a long first segment [scape], followed by a series of shorter ones. Ant antennae thus form an L shape rather than a smooth curve.
Simon Van Noort of Iziko Museums identified this little wasp as Conophorisca littoriticus. He writes in iSpot:
This is a species of a bizarre subfamily of Pteromalidae (Chalcidoidea) that are parasitoids of a range of insects (see WaspWeb link below under comments). Biology of most genera is unknown, but curculionid beetles (Coleoptera); mantid egg cases (Mantodea); or Glossina tsetse fly puparia (Glossinidae, Diptera) are known hosts. There is a rich African fauna, with most species still undescribed.

Spider myrmecomorphs

A fascinating aspect of these imitators are those impersonators – particularly spiders – that imitate ants that have long disappeared from suburban gardens in the face of invasion by Argentine ants and other aliens. The faux-ants provide us with a record of the historical ant-fauna of these areas. As time goes on we hope to build up an illustrated record of these frauds on this site; any photographs that we can draw from would be most welcome.
The ant-mimic above is Mexcala rufa [cf Tony Rebelo, iSpot]. It is a jumping spider from the sub-family Salticidae, and very accurately mimics the common Balbyter sugar ant, Camponotus fulvopilosus

But here’s the rub: the spider hails from Muizenberg, quite the wrong habitat for this dry, hot country ant. Could the spider be a relic from a hotter, drier time in the Cape?

Beetle myrmecomorphs

Although this gogga looks very ant-like, when you look at its underside you can see very clearly that its legs are attached utterly differently from those of an ant. Remember, too, that the first segment of the antennae of all ants is an elongated ‘stalk’.
Another ant-imitator [awaiting ID] – its movements are uncannily ant-like

Very similar to the above and probably the opposite sex of the same gogga, they’ve been identified as belonging to an undescribed genus of the sub-family Korynetinae
Here’s a wonderful conundrum; this undescribed, unnamed myrmecomorph is probably from the sub-family Anthicidae [Riaan Stals, pers comm] and it not only imitates ants, it seems to imitate the Korynetinae beetles above. Or is the Korynetine imitating the Anthicide? Anthicide or Korynetine? Who knows?

This tiny fellow seems to imitate Lepisiota ants; we are waiting for a name for him. (or her?)

Under construction

Contact us

Please don’t hesitate to contact us through this contact address:  . Please forgive the complication, but putting an email address up on site is too risky.

For the record: where they've been found


Bothroponera pumicosa: the Rugged ringbum ant

Found at: 
Oudebos; Cape Point

Tetraponera clypeata: the Black slender ant

Found at:
Silvermine, Lakeside, Kleinmond


under construction


Linepithema humile: the Argentine ant

Found at: 
Lakeside, Calvinia, Kleinmond, Ceres [town and mountainside]; Oudebos, Nieuwoudtville, Red Hill, Rondebosch, Marina da Gama, Zandvlei, Stanford, Hermanus, Muizenberg, Marina da Gama

Technomyrmex albipes: the White-footed ant

Found at:
Lakeside, Waterfalls Cottage near Stanford, Grootvadersbosch

About Us

I was fifteen when a perceptive uncle gave me a copy of Skaife’s ‘The Study of Ants’. I was quite a nerdy teenager and IT hadn’t been invented yet, so in no time at all I had colonies of restless goggas installed in the box-room under the stairs. I tried most of the species that Skaife recommended, but giant Spotted Sugar ants (Camponotus maculatus) were my favourite. A year or so later I was physically (but certainly not spiritually) nabbed by the SADF, and sent off to Pretoria to learn how to play cards in between mindless marching. The ants had to go; and I was privileged to have my ants accepted by the great Skaife himself, giving me the opportunity to spend days in his lab at Tierboskloof, in Hout Bay, before the khakis got me.
Twenty years later everything that Skaife had taught me became crucially important when, with William Bond, we discovered the importance of myrmecochory [ant distribution of seeds] in fynbos ecology. Sometimes being an amateur works well, and I do not heed the advice of the scruffy old Prof who commented that you can’t rely on amateurs to ID ants. The taxonomy of many genera, especially Pheidole and Camponotus, is in such a mess that you can’t, apparently, rely on the academics either.
That said, whether amateur or professional, your inputs towards mapping the poorly-known distribution of our ant species, especially the invaders who threaten the ecology of much of the fynbos, will be of huge value. Merely recording a few key ant species when you are resting during a hike, taking a lunch break, or chasing ants out of the kitchen of your holiday house will help provide key data that we simply do not have at present. Please feel free to comment freely on this site, or contact us through .
– Peter Slingsby, Zandvlei


Under construction

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

under construction


1. Argentine ants, Linepithema humile, specimens from Lakeside.
Also collected at Calvinia, Kleinmond, Ceres [mountainside]; Oudebos, Nieuwoudtville, Red Hill, Rondebosch, Marina da Gama, Zandvlei, Stanford, Hermanus etc etc

2. White-footed ant [I presume], Technomyrmex albipes [could be T. pallipes?]
Collected from Lakeside. Also collected at Waterfalls Cottage near Stanford.

3. Brown house ants, Pheidole capensis or P. megacephala, specimens from Oudebos, also collected at Silvermine, Tokai, Agter-Pakhuis (Sevilla), Tankwa Karoo, Sutherland, Nieuwoudtville, Ceres, Biedouw Valley

4. Small black sugar ant, Lepisiota capensis, specimen from Sevilla. Also collected at Oudebos, Bordjiesrif [Cape Point], Doordrift Constantia, Tokai,  Mount Nelson Hotel, Rooisand Kleinmond.

5. Balbyter ant, Camponotus fulvopilosus. Specimen from Tankwa Karoo. Also collected at Sutherland, Sevilla,  Kokerboomwoud Nieuwoudtville, Biedouw, Doringbos and near Calvinia
6. Spotted sugar ants, Camponotus maculatus, specimens from Sevilla. Also collected at Silvermine and Kleinmond.
7. Hairy sugar ant, Camponotus niveosetosus, specimen from Oudebos. Also collected at Tsitsikamma [?], Stanford
8. Large black sugar ant, Camponotus werthi, collected at Lakeside [!]. It may have come with plants from Kirstenbosch nursery.
9. Large pugnacious ant, Anoplolepis custodiens, collected at Ceres near caravan park. Curiously, I have not yet found it elsewhere.
10. Small pugnacious ant, Anoplolepis steingroeverii, specimens from Oudebos. Also collected at Sevilla, Ceres, Tankwa Karoo, Biedouw, Doring River, Kleinmond Rooisand, Betty's Bay, Silvermine, Cape Point, Red Hill, Stanford Waterfalls
11. Black feigning ant, Tetramorium sp [?], collected at Sevilla. Curls up and feigns death when touched. Common at Sevilla, seems to be a harvester. About 4mm long and heavier set than T. quadrispinosum; black but could almost be confused with a Pheidole major [which it definitely isn't!] More info anyone?
12. Black garden ant, Tetramorium quadrspinosum, collected at Oudebos. Also at Sevilla.
13. Hotrod ant, Ocymyrmex barbiger, collected [upper pic] at Sevilla [where they are surprisingly common] and Oudebos [lower pic]. Also collected in the Roggeveld north of Sutherland.
14. Drop-tail ant, Myrmicaria nigra, collected at Silvermine. Also at Ceres.
15. Cocktail ant, Crematogaster peringueyi, collected at Cape Point. Also at Red Hill, Kleinmond, Oudebos, Sevilla, Vlakkenberg, Stanford Waterfalls
16. Harvester ants, Messor capensis, specimens from Sevilla. Also collected at Tankwa Karoo and Hantam Botanical Garden at Nieuwoudtville.
17. Small yellow ant, Monomorium modestum [?], specimen from Cape Point. Also at Waterfalls, Stanford, and Oudebos.
18. Slender ant, Tetraponera clypeata, specimen from Lakeside! -- possibly on plants brought from Kirstenbosch nursery. Also collected at Silvermine and Kleinmond.
19. Red driver ant major, Dorylus helvolus. Collected at Kleinmond. Not yet encountered elsewhere.
Specimens of these and other species waiting to be drawn: about ten so far [inc Bothroponera and some other Camponotus as well as some males and females of the above]. Intend to do a perspective and a 'flat' for each in due course.

All illustrations ©Peter Slingsby