Friday, September 5, 2014

Anatomy; Collecting ants for Identification

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.


  1. Does knowing an ants identification help in the process of their extermination? We have a colony of fire ants in a forest where I live that attacked my dogs and I feel revenge is greatly needed. If knowing the type of ant does help, what do you recommend would be the best way to go about getting rid of the pesky colony?

  2. You can't get rid of ants, so forget it. Knowing the type of ant makes no difference. There are about 24000 species wordwide and more ants per hectare everywhere than you could count ...


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