Fire ants adept at both stinging and surviving


Give the lowly fire ant credit: Not only does it possess one heck of a sting, it’s apparently a pretty good engineer, too.

Researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology, studying these pesky members of the family Formicidae, have found that fire ants are not only able to make rafts out of their own bodies to stay afloat in water, but that their rafts are extraordinarily well-built.

“The towers, bridges and boats that ants build are remarkable in part because they’re strong and light and they adapt to their surroundings – and because ants serve as both the construction workers and the raw materials,” according to the Los Angeles Times. “Ants use their bodies like the beams in a building; instead of screwing or nailing those beams together, they reach out and touch each other.”

“It’s like their bodies are covered in Velcro,” said study co-author David Hu, a mechanical engineer at Georgia Tech.

Using a miniature CT scanner, the researchers were able to analyze the rafts and found that 99 percent of the fire ants had all their legs connected to neighbors.

Scientists were able to learn this by putting 110 live ants in a beaker, swirling it around so the ants would start to form tiny rafts, flash-freezing them in place and then examining them under the scanner, according to the Times. They did this four times in all, using a total of 440 ants with a total of 2,640 legs (each ant has six limbs).

The connectivity produces enough strength to keep rafts intact despite the pull of rough currents, according to Georgia Tech research published in a paper in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

“Now we can see how every brick is connected,” Hu said. “It’s kind of like looking inside a warehouse and seeing the scaffolding and I-beams.”

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How ants work together to survive floods

fire ant raft

Fire ants are a major hazard in the Southern US. Whether you stumble onto a colony of these tiny stinging demons or simply stand too near a nest, you’ll likely end up with painful reminders of how appropriately these insects are named.

The mounds – which can approach a density of 1,000 per acre – are usually 1 to 3 inches tall and made of soft dirt, but can sometimes approach a full 12 inches in height. It’s not unusual for a medium-sized nest to hold tens of thousands of ants.

Among environments fire ants like to construct nests is along riverbanks and around ponds. As someone who likes to fish, I’ve discovered many a fire ant nest the hard way.

So, while I have a soft spot for most living things, it is with a child-like glee that, after a day of fishing, I will take occasion to carefully kick ant nests into the water when the opportunity presents itself.

The way I see it, anything that can harm me or my kids – along with any other living creature unfortunate enough to blunder along – is fair game. And if I can help cut down on these invasive pests, even better.

One thing that always caught my attention was how the ants, after being punted into the drink, would cling together. This is no accident, according to a recent study released by scientists from the University of Lausanne in Switzerland.

When faced with a flood, ants use their own bodies to form a raft and rely on the buoyancy of the brood and the recovery ability of workers to minimize injury or death, according to the study, released earlier this week. In addition, the queen ant is placed in the middle and protected on all sides by the rafting ants.

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Giant hornet attacks: Very real, very painful

asian giant hornet

A tidbit often trotted out to allay the anxiety of those who decline to so much as dip their toes in the ocean for fear of shark attack is that far more people die from insect stings each year than from man-eating fish.

The difference being, of course, that shark attacks generate considerable media attention while insect stings, even when they cause death, rarely make more than local news.

Not so in China, where more than two dozen people were recently killed and hundreds more injured in a wave of attacks by giant hornets.

Victims described being chased for a thousand feet or more by the creatures and stung as many as 200 times, according to The Guardian.

The culprit appears to be the Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia), which grows up to two inches long with a quarter-inch sting.

It is the world’s largest hornet and is known colloquially as the “yak-killer hornet.”

The Asian giant hornet injects a particularly potent venom that can damage tissue. Its sting can lead to anaphylactic shock and renal failure.

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The ill-fated SC silkworm experiment of 1866


Prior to the War Between the States South Carolina’s Fairfield County was among the most prosperous areas in the state and the nation.

A good part of this wealth, it should be noted, was in the form of slaves.

According to U.S. Census data, Fairfield County population’s in 1860 included 15,534 slaves. A decade later not only were all those individuals freed, but the county’s population of blacks had decreased by 9 percent, to approximately 14,100.

In addition to the above loss of “property,” Union troops had done severe damage to the county seat of Winnsboro, burning much of the city in the waning days of February 1865, shortly after having laid waste Columbia, S.C., to the west.

So by the following year, with many of the county’s able-bodied white males dead or crippled from the war, a significant percentage of former slaves having moved from the area and general destitution evident throughout the region, residents were desperate.

One plan hatched was to try to create a silk industry in Fairfield County.

Katharine Theus Obear, writing in 1940 at age 88 in Through the Years in Old Winnsboro, recalled that a supply of silkworms were acquired and distributed to individuals in the county.

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Prepare for invasion of 17-year cicadas

brood II cicadas

After nearly two decades underground, billions of Brood II cicadas are expected to swarm the US East Coast in the coming two months.

Between mid-April and late May, the insects will emerge from the ground in an area ranging from New York to North Carolina, inhabiting trees for four to six weeks and looking for mates.

To get an idea of just how many cicadas will tunnel to the surface after being in the ground since 1996, residents in areas where this year’s “invasion” is forecast can expect as many as 1.5 millions of cicadas per square mile.

Called Brood II cicadas, they are periodic cicadas that hatch every 17 years.  Periodical cicadas are unique in their combination of long, prime-numbered life cycles – emerging after either 13 or 17 years – precisely timed mass emergences, and active and vocal choruses, according to the website

Magicicada is the genus of the 13-year and 17-year periodical cicadas of eastern North America.

“Periodical cicadas are found only in eastern North America. There are seven species — four with 13-year life cycles and three with 17-year cycles. The three 17-year species are generally northern in distribution, while the 13-year species are generally southern and Midwestern,” the website added.

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When giant fleas roamed earth – no, really

The modern-day flea, at 1/16 to 1/8 of an inch, is among the most bothersome of insects, with bites that can be both irritating and, at times, dangerous to humans.

Imagine, though, what life would have been like 150 million years ago, when blood-sucking fleas nearly an inch long scuttled across the earth.

That’s the claim being made by Chinese and French paleontologists, who have pored over nine extraordinary fossils unearthed from Inner Mongolia and Liaoning province.

The ancient fleas measured about eight-tens of an inch long for females, and nearly six-tenths of an inch for males, according to Agence France-Presse.

The fleas, which co-existed with dinosaurs, were wingless and, unlike their counterparts today, could not jump and had comparatively small mouths, according to the study.

But for all that, they were supremely adapted to their environmental niche, and a description of the prehistoric parasites sounds like something out of a science-fiction movie.

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Swallowtail caterpillars a pleasant portent

Swimming recently in the Tyger River along the Union County-Newberry County border, my kids and I came across half a dozen Black Swallowtail butterfly caterpillars.

These were fully grown specimens nearly two inches long, smooth and green, with black bands and yellow spots.

They were quite spectacular, provided insect larvae are your thing.

The small group we found were feeding on what appeared to be Virginia snakeroot located along the riverbank.

The Black Swallowtail is a black butterfly with yellow markings near the margins of the forewings and hindwings, and more limited blue and red markings on the hindwings, according to a description by the Texas A&M Extension Service. Its wingspan can reach 4-½ inches.

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