Ant metropolis discovered on floor of Temple Town Forest

  • The Allegheny mound ant colony in the Temple town forest is one of the larger colonies in the Northeast. Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton—

  • The Allegheny mound ant colony in the Temple town forest is one of the larger colonies in the Northeast. Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton—

  • The Allegheny mound ant colony in the Temple town forest is one of the larger colonies in the Northeast. Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton—

  • The Allegheny mound ant colony in the Temple town forest is one of the larger colonies in the Northeast. Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton—

  • The Allegheny mound ant colony in the Temple town forest is one of the larger colonies in the Northeast. Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton—

  • The Allegheny mound ant colony in the Temple town forest is one of the larger colonies in the Northeast. Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton—

  • The Allegheny mound ant colony in the Temple town forest is one of the larger colonies in the Northeast. Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton—

  • The Allegheny mound ant colony in the Temple town forest is one of the larger colonies in the Northeast. Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton—

  • The Allegheny mound ant colony in the Temple town forest is one of the larger colonies in the Northeast. Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton—

  • The Allegheny mound ant colony in the Temple town forest is one of the larger colonies in the Northeast. Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton—

  • The Allegheny mound ant colony in the Temple town forest is one of the larger colonies in the Northeast. Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton—

  • Participants in a forest walk in early September visit a large colony of Allegheny mound ants. Courtesy photo—Scott Hecker

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 10/2/2019 6:02:36 PM

About fifty years ago, a mated queen ant dropped to the forest floor on the Temple and Lyndeborough town line. She’d flown from a colony miles away, on a search-and-destroy mission to claim a home for her future colony. She soon infiltrated a local hill of black and silver ants, crawling deep into the warrens to the host queen’s chamber. There, she killed the unsuspecting queen and assumed her identity, coating herself in the host queen’s pheromones. The black and silver workers diligently tended her eggs, not knowing that soon, the usurper queen’s red and black Allegheny mound ant progeny would replace them at their own job.

Today, the colony is a teeming subterranean metropolis of anywhere between half and three-quarters of a million ants, perpetuated by several genetically identical queens dwelling deep beneath a swath of interconnected mounds.

This might sound like a feudal epic crossed with science fiction, but according to Aaron Ellison, a senior research fellow and deputy director at Harvard Forest in Petersham, Massachusetts, it’s likely how the Allegheny mound ant, Formica exsectoides, came to the Temple town forest. He visited the colony on Monday after hearing a description of the six or seven active, waist-high mounds from Conservation Commission member Scott Hecker.

Ellison authored A Field Guide to the Ants of New England (2012), and said the Temple colony had not previously been reported.

“There aren’t a lot of big colonies that I know in New England,” he said, and that this one was at the northern limit of the species’ distribution along the East Coast.

Mounds like the ones in Temple would be a likelier sight in southeastern states, though he said there’s a similar-sized colony on top of Mount Grace in Warwick, Massachusetts.

Ellison said the ants will prune vegetation that grows on their mounds, but abandon them as forest shade encroaches. He was surprised that the colony appears to have stayed in place, a forest clearing that hadn’t grown over in 50 or 60 years.

“Do what you can to keep it here,” he said. Colonies are extremely resilient: The queens dwell between twelve and eighteen feet underground, well-insulated from bear swipes or human footfalls. The colony will continue to regenerate as long as even one of the clonal queens survive. Ellison said that “about 80 percent” of the calls he receives about ants are for advice on how to eradicate them, but he pointed out the species’ benefits.

“Ants are a little more charismatic than plants – some plants, anyway,” he said. “Little kids notice them … and they’re good at telling us how the world works.”

The ants are omnivorous scavengers and forage in the 50 to 100 feet of forest surrounding the mounds. The species preys on insect pests in blueberry fields and forest stands, according to the University of Maine Extension. They’re also recyclers.

“Critters die. We’re not up to our armpits in carcasses,” Ellison said, noting the ants will scavenge dead animals as large as baby birds.

The ants’ waste, plus minerals they bring up from underground, mean their homes are extremely fertile heaps of soil. This is especially important in New England, he said, because all of the region’s native earthworms were eradicated during the last Ice Age. As a result, ants were the primary creators of soil that developed post-glaciation.

“The stickers say, ‘No Farms, No Food,’ but they could say ‘No Ants, No Farms’,” Ellison said.

The ants will bite bears (or photographers) that intrude on their mounds, and inject formic acid to make it sting, but they don’t hurt as much as fire ants.

“If someone put their foot through your roof,” Ellison said, you’d probably want to fight, too.

Ellison said some birds intentionally dust themselves on mounds, allowing the ants to pick parasites off their bodies.

Ellison was surprised to see the ants active so late in the season. He said they’d be “doing their canning and such” at this point in the fall.

“They go down [into the mound] once it gets much colder,” he said, around 45 degrees.

Because they’re cold blooded, Ellison said that ants are good indicators of changes in climate. Scientists can learn about the climatic changes in a region as a southern species appears, or a boreal species disappears.

“I’ve worked all over the world and the only thing I’ve seen that’s similar is the leafcutter and in the tropics – and actually those mounds were a little smaller,” said Hecker.

He sees the ants’ presence on the town property as an educational opportunity and hopes to set up signs. He said there is a little over a mile of trail on the 54-acre property, and Girl Scouts are planning to work with members of the Conservation Commission to blaze the trails over the next couple of weekends.

There is no charge or permit required to visit the Town Forest, which is located off North Road in Temple, 1.5 miles off of Webster Highway or just over the town line from Old Temple Road West in Lyndeborough..




Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

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