“What are those white things inside an ant nest?”

Last Friday I was tasked with collecting some fire ant decapitating flies (Pseudacteon curvatus). Lucky for me, the season for collecting these flies hasn’t completely ended. Also, to my surprise, there are still a lot of visible fire ant mounds just about everywhere in College Station, Texas. Friday was a little chilly and overcast, but I had a feeling Saturday would be a good day. Indeed, Saturday was great. I didn’t have to go far on my hunt. 

The fire ant decapitating flies I caught!

I decided to first search in my neighborhood. There were so many fire ant mounds and the sooner I could collect the better. I disturbed several mounds by kicking the top layer of the nest. It didn’t take too long for decapitating flies to show up. The flies cue in on the alarm pheromone of the fire ants. As soon as they arrive, they begin laying eggs by attacking the ants. Quickly diving in and out, hoping to inject their sharp ovipositor (egg laying organ) and lay an egg into the fire ant host.

A disturbed fire ant nest. The white stuff is the brood (i.e., babies)! Photo from UF IFAS Extension.

As I continued to enjoy the nice weather and wait for more flies to show up to collect, some curious kids came up to me. Twice I was asked the question, “what are those white things <pointing at the fire ant nest>?” I realized I’ve heard this question many times before. Friends and strangers have inquired about the white things that “look like rice.” I don’t even think about it because I’m so accustomed to the biology of ants – “oh their brood.” This made me realize that if someone hasn’t learned about or experienced it, then how would they know? What’s a brood and why does it exist? It’s so weird how something like a mobile dark red fire ant came from an immobile whiteish squishy blob. 

The direct answer is thankfully simple, the white stuff is their “babies.” Like butterflies, ants and other Hymenopterans (such as bees and wasps), go through complete metamorphosis, meaning, they have an egg, larval, pupae, and adult stage. All these stages look different from each other. 

Life stages of a red imported fire ant (Solenopsis invicta) worker. Photo by Bart Drees. More photos at https://fireant.tamu.edu/materials/photo-gallery/

The next time you come across an ant nest, take a closer look. You’ll see all kinds of life stages and interesting behaviors. 

P. S.

Joe successfully finished his prelims! Nancy, Joe, and I have been pretty swamped, but we hope to have updates and more help soon 🙂

About JoanieTheEntomologist

PhD candidate in entomology.
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2 Responses to “What are those white things inside an ant nest?”

  1. Prior... says:

    Thanks for the interesting post
    😉

    Like

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