An Excerpt from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter of May 22, 2005

issued from California's Sierra Nevada Foothills

VELVETY TREE ANTS

Only someone who has gardened or walked around much in fire-ant territory can know how thankful I am that here we have no fire ants. In fact, the most bothersome ant here is just a stinker who drops from trees, gets tangled in one's hair, and that's hardly a bother at all.

At first this ant's penetrating odor doesn't strike you as particularly bad, but it's one of those oily, musky smells that with time becomes nauseating. Usually you only smell them when they drop from a tree and you brush them away, then sniff your fingertips. However, this last week I've spent a lot of time identifying them as they streamed up and down a California Black Oak next to my trailer, where they have a nest in a rotted-out injury, so I can tell you this: Their odor is so intense that if you hold your face six inches above a marching column you can become thoroughly disgusted with the smell.

Happily, California ant-enthusiasts have a well-illustrated, easy-to-use, online key to the comon California ants at www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/TOOLS/ANTKEY/. Even if you're not in California, if you have access to a powerful magnifying glass and an ant, I think you might enjoy using the key because it obliges you to pay attention to features you surely never even imagined existed.

{UPDATE, June 26, 2005: With this key I identified my ants as carpenter ants of the genus CAMPONOTUS, and in the original edition of this letter that's what I reported them as being. However, ant-enthusiast Jim Clark wrote saying that the key is only for common ants, and that actually my ants were probably Velvety Tree-ants, LIOMETOPUM OCCIDENTALE. Pictures on the Internet seem to confirm this. Therefore, you can't be too sure about your results with this key. Still, it's fun to use and teaches you a lot.}

California's ant fauna comprises 270 species (245 native, 25 introduced). About 25% of the native species are endemic to the state or to the "California Floristic Province," which includes northern Baja California in Mexico and southern Oregon.

You might enjoy browsing AntWeb's different ant collections -- there's a special section on "world ants" and one on "California Ants" -- where you click on a thumbnail and see much larger pictures and information at www.antweb.org.

The "Ants of California" page is at www.antweb.org/california.jsp.