"All About Ants II" is posted on YouTube at https://youtu.be/d8eRNsD8dxo.
Ward, known for his expertise on ant systematics, offered an hour-long, introductory presentation on ants and answered scores of questions, drawing viewers from as far away as Virginia. He illustrated his talk with ant images taken his former doctoral student Alex Wild (PhD from UC Davis in 2005), curator of entomology at the University of Texas, Austin, and a noted macro photographer (http://www.alexanderwild.com) and blogger, http://www.myrmecos.net.
Ants, Ward said, live in long-lived colonies with (1) cooperative brood care (2) overlapping generations and (3) reproductive division of labor, the hall marks of eusocial behavior. He also pointed out:
- A typical ant colony contains a reproductive queen, numerous non-reproductive workers and brood (eggs, larvae, pupae)
- Colonies of ants can be thought of as superorganisms: tightly integrated and cooperative entities with complex systems of communication and division of labor (castes)
Ants originated about 120 million years ago (early Cretaceous), evolving from "wasp-like creatures," Ward said. They are members of the order Hymenoptera, and their closest relatives include honey bees, cockroach wasp and the mud daubers.
California has some 300 species of ants, Ward related, but thousands more are in the tropics, like Costa Rico. Globally, there may be as many as 40,000 to 50,000 species of ants, the professor estimated, but only about 14,000 are described.
"Ants have occupied almost all of the world's land surfaces, from deserts to rain forests," Ward said. "There's a few places they're absent. They're not in Antarctica, no surprise! They haven't colonized the Arctic and a few very high elevation tropical mountains, but apart from that, almost any place you go on land you'll see our friends, the ants. And they have assumed a quite a diverse array of ecological roles. Some of them are predators, others are scavengers, and some are seed collectors, and these habits vary tremendously among different species in different parts of the world."
Ants communicate largely by chemical (pheromones) and tactile means, Ward said. Their vision is "not particularly acute." He pointed out that that they lay a trail pheromones from the source of food back to the nest. They have alarm pheromones, causing other workers to act defensively. Chemicals also help ants distinguish their nest mates.
Some ants, like the Argentine ants, are pests. These invaders from South America "form super colonies, which means different colonies don't fight each other; they're all cooperating. And the other downside of Argentine ants is that they tend to eliminate native ants. So over the years I've lived in Davis, I have certainly noticed that native ants have declined as the Argentine ants have expanded. And they expand not just in, say, urban areas, but along certain natural habitats and one that they really like is the riparian habitat. So if you look along rivers and streams that are near urban areas, they're getting invaded by Argentine ants. And when they do, most native ants just disappear. This is a very tough aggressive ant and the mellow California ants can't handle an aggressive invader from South America. So they just disappear."
See the entire presentation here.
There's more to Sonoma County's Bodega Head than the stunning views, crashing waves, nesting seabirds, and bursts of flora and fauna.
The sand cliffs are also the home of a digger bee, a bumble bee mimic known as Anthophora bomboides stanfordiana.
"The species name indicates that it is a bumble bee mimic," the late Robbin Thorp, a global authority on bumble bees and a UC Davis distinguished emeritus professor of entomology, told us several years ago. "These bees need a source of fresh water nearby. Females suck up water, regurgitate it on the sandstone bank surface, then dig away at the soft mud. They use some of the mud to build entrance turrets, presumably to help them locate their nests within the aggregation of nests."
"The female," Thorp said, "sucks up fresh water from nearby, stores it in her crop (like honey bees store nectar) for transport to the nest. She regurgitates it on the sandstone, and excavates the moistened soil. She carries out the mud and makes the entrance turret with it."
On multiple trips to Bodega Bay over the years, we watch in fascination as the bees excavate their homes, zip in and out of their turrets, and nectar on nearby flowers.
This time (June 24) we photographed an ant and bee encounter on a turret. The ant? Formica transmontanis, according to ant specialists Phil Ward, professor of entomology at UC Davis, and UC Davis alumnus Brendon Boudinot, who recently received his doctorate from UC Davis, studying with Ward.
"The species nests on the bluffs," Ward told us.
And about that bee-ant encounter? Commented Boudinot: "I suspect the little lady was alarmed by the big bee. These ants and their relatives are rather passive scavengers except during the brooding season, when fresh meat is an order. Most entomeat for Formica tend to be free-walking insects than barricaded larvae, as probably for the bee. For these reasons I think that the encounter may be coincidental!"
Scores of UC Davis entomologists have engaged in research at Bodega Bay. Rachel Vannette, assistant professor, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, is currently researching Anthophora bomboides stanfordiana and its nests as part of a National Science Foundation grant. Her project on solitary bee provision microbiome includes investigating the diverse community of bacteria and fungi in the provisions and brood cells.
While COVID-19 mandates and precautions hamper her research team's efforts (she's done some preliminary sampling this year and the entire team is planning to do research next year), the digger bees of Bodega Head keep digging, crafting turrets, nectaring on the nearby flora--and encountering ants.
They're all in this together.
When doctoral candidate and entomologist extraordinaire Brendon Boudinot delivered his exit seminar on ants to the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, he drew acclaim, admiration and applause.
Boudinot, whose peers marvel at his expertise on all-things-ants and, indeed, all-things-entomological, greeted a standing-room only crowd in Room 122 of Briggs Hall.
If any ants had been in the room, they would have stood at attention, too.
Major professor Phil Ward praised Boudinot's intellectual curiosity, his contributions to science and his service to the department and campus. "He is an incredible fireball of energy, enthusiasm and intellectual curiosity," Ward said. "He will be sorely missed."
Boudinot, who excels in academics, leadership, public service activities, professional activities, and scientific publications, won the 2019 John Henry Comstock Award from the Pacific Branch, Entomological Society of America (PBESA). The Comstock award is PBESA's highest graduate student award in a region that encompasses 11 states, U.S. territories, and parts of Canada and Mexico.
Just a few of Boudinot's accomplishments:
- Published several landmark papers on insect systematics, including research in the journal Arthropod Structure and Development (in which he presented a comprehensive theory of genital homologies across all Hexapoda). Scientists describe the work as "classic."
- Received multiple “President's Prize” awards for his research presentations at the Entomological Society of America (ESA) meetings. He organized the ESA symposium, “Evolutionary and Phylogenetic Morphology,” at the 2018 meeting in Vancouver, B.C. , and delivered a presentation on “Male Ants: Past, Present and Prospects” at the 2016 International Congress of Entomology meeting in Orlando, Fla.
- Served on three of the UC Davis Linnaean Games teams that won national or international ESA championships. The Linnaean Games are a lively question-and-answer, college bowl-style competition on entomological facts played between university-sponsored student teams.
- Served as president of the UC Davis Entomology Graduate Student Association from 2016 to 2019.
- Co-chaired the department's Picnic Day activities (part of the annual campuswide Picnic Day celebration) with forensic entomologist Robert Kimsey for several years. Boudinot also did double duty as "The Bug Doctor," fielding questions from the general public.
Boudinot titled his exit seminar, "Abdomens and Ants: Evolutionary and Phylogenetic Morphology of the Insects." The title prompted Ward to quip "Here's Brendon talking about ants, abdomens and the meaning of life."
Boudinot divided his talk into two parts: (1) from the ocean onto land, from the land into the sky, and (2) from the sky back to the land (ants).
"Between about 410 to 480 million years ago, there was an event where the ancestor of the insects that we think of as insects today, not only had moved onto land, but gained numerous adaptations for land," Boudinot began. "So this first part of this talk is going to be a comparison of these wingless insects."
Pointing out that insects have a head, a thorax, and abdomen, Boudinot asked: "Why do we care about the abdomen? Okay, we don't maybe generally care about the abdomen and maybe we don't care that much about insect genitalia, but I care about insect genitalia and a lot of insects do, too."
The crowd, knowing Boudinot's interest in ant genitalia research and knowing insects' interest in reproduction, erupted into laughter.
Gillung, who received her doctorate in entomology from UC Davis in December 2018, and is now a postdoctoral researcher at Cornell University, has won the Snodgrass Memorial Research Award from the Entomological Society of America (ESA) for her landmark dissertation on spider flies.
Spider flies? They're parasitoids of spiders in the family Acroceridaae and not widely known. Many are bee or wasp mimics. They are commonly called "small-headed flies" or "hunch-backed flies."
The award, given by ESA's Systematics, Evolution and Biodiversity Section, recognizes outstanding research by a doctoral student who has completed a research thesis or dissertation in arthropod morphology, systematics, taxonomy, or evolution. The prize is a $500 cash award and an invited talk at ESA. She'll speak on "Unraveling the Evolution of Spider Flies (Diptera, Acroceridae): Progress and Possibilities" at the ESA's annual meeting, set Nov. 17-20 in St. Louis, Mo.
Gilllung studied with major professor Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology. She also studied with mentor Shaun Winterton, insect biosystematist, California Department of Food and Agriculture, and collaborated with ant specialist and taxonomist Phil Ward, professor, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology.
Gillung's dissertation, involving genomics, phylogenetics, systematics, and comparative analyses, “has increased our understanding of the biological patterns and processes that have shaped our planet's biodiversity,” Kimsey wrote in her letter of nomination. Her taxonomic work included identification keys and morphology-based diagnoses of species using modern techniques of cybertaxonomy—the application of the internet, digital technologies, and computer resources to increase and speed up the discovery and cataloging of new species, Kimsey wrote in her letter of nomination.
“Using cybertaxonomic tools, Jessica described 25 new spider fly species herself, and in collaboration with fellow entomologists, three fossil species from Baltic amber, described in her first dissertation chapter," Kimsey wrote. "Cybertaxonomy is a powerful tool that allows researchers and citizen scientists to collaborate in real time and across great distances to increase the speed and efficiency of biodiversity discovery.”
Kimsey noted that “Jessica unraveled the functional and ecological implications of key morphological traits, as well as their distribution across the Tree of Life," and "established new homologies for the wing venation of spider flies. She conducted detailed and assiduous dissections of male reproductive structures (i.e., genitalia) to understand homologies, demonstrating that morphological traits are dynamically evolving systems useful for both classification and inference of evolutionary history.”
While at UC Davis, Gillung drew more $120,000 in grants and awards for her multifaceted research on genomics, bioinformatics, phylogenetics, plant-pollinator interactions, and biodiversity discovery. She compiled a near straight-A academic record, published 11 refereed publications in top journals, and engaged in public service and outreach programs that reached more than 20,000 people at UC Davis-based events.
Gillung was a key member of the UC Davis Linnaean Games Team that won the ESA national championship in 2015. (See YouTube video.) The Linnaean Games are lively question-and-answer, college bowl-style competitions on entomological facts played between university-sponsored student teams.
The UC Davis-trained entomologist earlier received
- The 2019 Marsh Award for Early Career Entomologist, sponsored by the Royal Entomological Society. That involved a $1624 cash award and an invitation to the society meeting, Aug. 20-22 at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
- The 2019 Early Career Award from the Pacific Branch, Entomological Society of America (PBESA). PBESA encompasses 11 western states, U.S. territories and parts of Canada and Mexico.
- The 2018 Student Leadership Award from PBESA
- The “Best Student Presentation Award” at the ninth annual International Congress of Dipterology, held in 2018 in Windhoek, Namibia.
At Cornell, Gillung is researching Apoidea (stinging wasps and bees) phylogenomics, evolution and diversification in the Brian Danforth lab.
Ant specialists and other researchers also hone in on big-eyed ants for their relationships with plants.
Those attending a UC Davis seminar this week on big ants will learn all about them, including the phylogenetic morphology.
Brendon Boudinot, a Ph.D. candidate in the Phiil Ward lab, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, will speak on "Phylogenetic Morphology of the Big-Eyed Tree Ants and Kin (Formicidae: Pseudomyrmecinae)" at 4:10 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 28 in 122 Briggs Hall.
This is one of the seminars hosted by the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology for the winter quarter.
"Like their closest relatives, the infamous bulldog ants of Australia, the big-eyed tree ants have a nasty sting, but this isn't what draws our attention to them," he says. "Rather, many species of big-eyed ants have intimate relationships with plants. In the most extreme cases, the ants act as the plants' personal body guards, raining down upon perceived threats as a deluge of stings, and even pruning away competitive vegetation, forming eerily still 'satan's gardens' in South America.'
"In some cases, the plants contribute to the social wellbeing of the ants by investing in public housing, with the ants making their nests in preformed cavities within the plants, such as in the swollen thorns of various Acacia," Boudinot points out. "Indeed, these same Acacia provide the sole nutrition for their protectives ants, in the form of small, yellow, protein-rich food bodies at the tips of their leaves---in other words, the ants have become full vegans. Current evidence suggests that these tight relationships have evolved perhaps a dozen times within the big-eyed ants. However, the adaptations of these ants to living in state-sponsored societies is uncertain. It is one of the objectives of the present research to understand how the bodies of big-eyed ants have transformed over time, allowing the ants to optimize their relationship with plants."
Boudinot will be illustrating his seminar with stunning photos of big-eyed ants, the work of Alex Wild, who received his doctorate in entomology from UC Davis (studying with Phil Ward). Wild is now curator of entomology, University of Austin, Texas.
The UC Davis Entomology and Nematology's series of seminars for the winter quarter are coordinated by assistant professor Rachel Vannette; Extension apiculturist Elina Lastro Niño and Brendon Boudinot.