By Monte Tudor-Long
If you list the different birds in your yard, you might come up with 15 to 20 species: myna, spotted dove, cardinal, perhaps a kolea or occasional nene flying over. It may come as a surprise, but you probably have just as many species of ants near your home.
You might ask, “Who cares? If you’ve seen one ant, you’ve seen ’em all!” But as with bird-watching, there’s a certain aesthetic to ant- watching. Just as birds are diverse and interesting to look at, the same can be true for ants. Check out Maui’s ants up close and you will discover a lot of variety. In addition to knowing more about the curious lives of these tiny cohabitants, what you learn could help stop the next invasion.
Ants are globally widespread and abundant, but all 50-plus species in the Hawaiian Islands were accidentally introduced by humans. Scientists and decision-makers concerned about invasive species look at impacts on residents, and also how invading species alter native ecosystems, and change agriculture, tourism, hunting and more. Different ant species may affect all, some or none of these realms. Our understanding of the problems caused by introduced ants comes from our knowledge of which ants are present, when they got here and where they can be found. Informed decisions require good information, and citizen scientists are a great source of important data on invasive species.
Observing and collecting ants can be easy and fun, and kids seem especially good at it. The first little fire ant ever collected in the United States was found by an 11-year-old girl in Florida; a 12-year-old boy in Alabama discovered the first red imported fire ant in the U.S. For both children and adults, ant-watching can be a gateway into new ways to observe, learn about and care for the ‘aina.
One kind of ant can be as different from the next as a parrot is from a duck. You’ve probably encountered a species or two of pest ants inside your home, but most ants on Maui are not interested in your kitchen. Some indoor pests, such as black house ants, African big-headed ants, little yellow ants and ghost ants have a fondness for sweets. Ants in our yards include omnivorous ants, seed-eating ants, predatory-specialist ants, blind ants and others. The sickle-tooth ant specializes in eating pill bugs and sow bugs. The tropical fire ant, a serious outdoor pest, likes to eat grass seeds. Yellow crazy ants practically ignore people but are devastating to native ground-nesting seabirds. Graceful twig ants often nest in dead twigs in kiawe trees. Sneaking ants seem to prefer living in the most marginal, disturbed habitats available, like road medians and other sparsely-vegetated areas.
When you notice how different these ants appear, it might be less surprising that their social structures, where they live and what they eat are very different from each other.
Bird-watching is a popular hobby, and citizen-scientist bird-watchers enter tens of millions of sightings into online databases every year, giving conservation managers a wealth of data to help guide decision-making. The same cannot be said of ants — yet. Because they are tiny, it can be hard to tell one ant from another. But if you overcame that barrier, wouldn’t it be interesting to know all the different ants in your yard, and learn a little bit about their lives and natural histories? Since the year 2000, more than a dozen new introduced ant species have been recorded on Maui, including one last year. By becoming an ant sleuth, you just might be the one to find the next new species.
Spend some time in your yard, collect some ants and send them to the Maui Invasive Species Committee for identification. In return, you’ll receive information about the species of ants you found. You can start building a list of ants on your property. Collecting ants is simple: put a tiny bit of bait (peanut butter or mayo) on several 4-to-5-inch pieces of cardboard, leave them in shady spots around the yard for an hour and then freeze them in a ziptop sandwich bag. Mail your samples to MISC, P.O. Box 983, Makawao 96768. Questions? Contact miscants @hawaii.edu.
* Monte Tudor-Long is an early detection specialist with the Maui Invasive Species Committee, focusing on ant identification, natural history and ecology. He holds a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies from the University of California at Santa Cruz. “Kia’i Moku, Guarding the Island” is written by the Maui Invasive Species Committee to provide information on protecting the island from invasive plants and animals that threaten our islands’ environment, economy and quality of life.
This article was originally published in the Maui News on March 11, 2023 as part of the Kia‘i Moku Column from the Maui Invasive Species Committee.
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