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The Ants in Your House Want to Tell You Something, and Dr. Eleanor Can Translate

Under the ground, along the sidewalks, inside of acorns (and probably in your house) live a wide variety of ants that we’re only beginning to understand—and Eleanor Spicer Rice’s new book is a good start.

Photo: Courtesy of the author

When a co-worker handed me a copy of Dr. Eleanor’s Book of Common Ants of Chicago—part of a series that includes a book on common ants in general, common ants of New York City, and of California—it was as excited as I’ve been for a book in a while—like the guidebooks of birds I loved as a child, but for the ever-present but underappreciated insects under my feet.

Dr. Eleanor is Eleanor Spicer Rice, a writer with a PhD in entomology from North Carolina State University; the book emerged out of the School of Ants project, a citizen-scientist collaboration co-led by NCSU biologist Rob Dunn, who provides the introduction to the books. (The photographs are by Alex Wild, curator of entomology at the University of Texas-Austin and a prominent insect photographer.)

Rice begins her tour of the city’s ants with one of their legendary students: Mary Talbot, a pioneering entomologist who surveyed the region’s population for her dissertation at the University of Chicago. She went on to become one of the most influential researchers in the field of myrmecology; E.O. Wilson, the biologist who became world famous through his study of ant society, paid tribute to her by naming an ant, formica talbotae, after her. (He also contributes an epilogue, with Field Museum entomologist Corrie Moreau, to the book.)

Since Talbot’s time, the focus on ants has largely centered on ants in the wild. But, thanks in part to to local researchers and projects like the School of Ants, it’s turning back toward how ant societies interact with our own—opening up their little horizons to cityfolk and our own form of the wild.

Ants have been a passion of yours since you were a child. How come?

What were you interested in as a kid?

Birds. We had a big bay window in the kitchen looking out over a bird feeder, and I’d watch and identify them.

That’s what we’re like as children. We watch what’s around us. Because I was outside all the time, I liked bugs. I liked birds too, but there were so many bugs. You have to wait for a bird; you don’t have to wait for an ant very long to come up to you.

So I liked all of nature as a child, but when I realized you could study bugs, I figured you could get the most bang for your buck from an educational standpoint, because there were so many around you, that I would learn the most about my environment by studying them as opposed to other creatures.

I was a little surprised, reading the book, how little we know about ants. I’m a bit familiar with E.O. Wilson’s work, so I just assumed they were well-studied.

We know a lot about some ants. We know a lot about ants that bother us, that are pests. We know a lot about ants that are in tropical areas, because they go down there and study these things because it seems so exotic. But a lot of the ants that are native or don’t bother us, we don’t really pay attention to them. At least three of the ants in the Chicago ant book don’t even have a common name, because we don’t pay attention to them. Because they don’t bother us. But that doesn’t mean that they’re not out there doing wonderful things for us and our environment.

I get the sense that we have a better sense of how ants live and function in the “wild” as opposed to urban environments.

One of the things we’re realizing is that our urban environment is the wild. It’s increasingly the wild, because we’re paving everything around us. We do know a lot about ants in areas that we think of as super biologically diverse. But we also have tons of creatures that are living around us, and some of them are living with us, and doing stuff we wouldn’t have thought about.

A guy named Clint Penick and a woman named Amy Savage studied ants in New York, and ants are really big for eating garbage in New York. And they probably are in Chicago as well. They’re interacting with us as we change our environment, and they are coming with us and adapting to this urban area.

That’s how Mary Talbot, one of the great ant researchers, got her start. What’s her significance in the field?

She was born in 1903. When she started her professional career in the ’20s, a lot of women didn’t have scientific careers, and of the women who did, pretty much nobody was looking at insects. Even when I was getting my PhD, there weren’t a lot of women in the field. But she was like me; she’d collect bits and pieces of nature as a child, loved following creatures around, and she never quit. 

She made a lot of discoveries. In Chicago, she found 90 ant species, many of which hadn’t been studied yet. After she quit studying ants in Chicago, people quit studying them for a really long time, until the past decade or so. Now you’ve got Corrie Moreau at the Field Museum and Sean Menke in Lake Forest, and they’re paying attention to your ants. You have citizen science projects where you or anybody can go out there and collect your ants, and mail them in, and researchers will tell you what you have, and you can start to see what’s going on around you.

Having read the book, I think it’s the odorous house ants that we get in my house.

Did you squish it and smell it?

I haven’t been able to bring myself to.

They’re really fun. Sean Menke studied them in the forest and how they act when they move into the city. He found that once they move there and get all jazzed up on your junk food, their colonies just go nuts. They have huge populations.

Odorous house ant Photo: Alex Wild

One of my favorite things about the book is, in that chapter, you actually don’t mind when odorous house ants get into the house.

No! They’re not dirty. It’s not like they want to get in bed with you at night. They’re just coming in to eat something and tell you that there’s something wrong with your house.

If you can figure out what kind of ant you have, you can figure out what you need to do to get them out. Carpenter ants are forest-type ants, and they like rotting and wet, damp wood, and termites. They’re pointing you to something—you might have a leak; you might have rotting wood; you might have termites. Same thing with odorous ants—there’s a crack somewhere that they’re getting through. The odds are not that they’re nesting in your house.

I’ve seen odorous house ants nesting in people’s houses, or a huge nest in the back of somebody’s car, living underneath their mats. They’d pull into their driveway, the ants would get out of the car, go forage up and down the tree, eat all the suckers or whatever their children were dropping on the floor. That just shows how adaptable and wonderful they are. But it also shows they had a leak in their drainage system that was making a nice, moist environment underneath the mats to live in. So thank you, ants, for showing us what’s going on.

It’s incredible to me that they can communicate in such a robust way to make that kind of thing possible.

It seems like it’s one big decision, but it’s really just individual ants making decisions based on what’s happening to that one ant, which turns into this collective response. You think, the ant colony has figured this out, and really every single ant that’s going over there has figured it out on her own.

Do you have a favorite of the Chicago ants?

Yes. I have two different favorites. The winnow ant, that’s the one that’s so pretty and graceful. She has these long legs and that skinny, beautiful waist. She walks around on her tiptoes like a little ballerina. Their whole colony are the ones that plant seeds in the forest; other ants do that, but she’s so good at it. [Winnow ants take seeds with a coating called an elaiosome back to their nests, eat the coating, then take it out of their nest when they’re done, leaving them to sprout. According to the book, “almost two-thirds of all herb seeds produced in the forest… are picked up by winnow ants."] She’s so beautiful to watch, and just a pleasure to have. If you have a log in your yard or trees nearby, you’re likely to have them.

The hobbit ant is super common but doesn’t have a common name. [She refers to them as the “hobbit ant” in part because they nest in “microhabitats,” like in the hollow holes of twigs or inside empty acorns.] I just love the way that they live; I love that they don’t even have to make new babies every year because the queens are so long lived. They’re slow, they come out in the winter, they play dead, they do all kinds of fun little ant-y things. The winnow ant is winning the beauty contest; the hobbit ant is the dark-horse in the ant contest.

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