ANTS!  What Good Are They?

During the last 12 years, Bill Clark has collected more than 250,000 ant specimens on the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory (INL).    Clark is an affiliate of the Environmental Science and Research Foundation and is assistant director of the Orma J. Smith Museum of Natural History at Albertson College of Idaho.

On the INL, there are 47 species and literally billions of individual ants.  “If you could place all the ants of the INL together and weigh them, they’d outweigh all the vertebrate animals put together,” says Clark. 

Like humans, ants are social creatures, living together in a cooperative manner.  An ant colony consists mainly of workers and one to several queens.  Workers come in a variety of sizes for doing different jobs.  During the reproductive season, an ant colony will produce winged males and females which usually swarm around a landmark, such as a tree or hill, to mate.

Ants are important components of an ecosystem for several reasons.  Their soil-moving skills make them important in nutrient cycling.  They are a food source for many animals, including woodpeckers, bears, and, as any flyfisher knows, fish.  Some subfamilies of ants can sting and thus may have some medical importance. 

Ants can be grouped by their method of getting food.  The feeding guilds represented in Idaho include seed harvesters, liquid feeders, predators, slave-making ants, and omnivores, the ants that eat most anything.

Ant nests are as diverse as their feeding habits.  Most ants nest in the ground.  These nests vary from shallow to several meters deep.  Most underground nests have many entrances which may be surrounded by excavated soil.

Research in the late 1960s and early 1970s found 22 species of ants at the Site.  Clark and his research partner Paul Blom redid this inventory and found 47 species of ants on the INL, including one that’s new to science and several that were previously unreported for Idaho.  

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