UF/IFAS entomology department is new home to School of Ants project
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The nationwide School of Ants has set up shop at the University of Florida, but picnickers can relax – none of its “students” are the six-legged variety.
The school is an example of citizen science, a project where ordinary people collect and submit data for experts to review and compile. Participants collect ants from their yards and neighborhoods, and then entomologists identify each species and plot its location on digital maps that, eventually, will provide a snapshot of ant distribution around the country.
“Knowledge of the presence of a species of ant might help for things like quarantine and control, if the species is a problem,” said founder Andrea Lucky, an assistant scientist with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “If we find a rare ant, or an ant that’s way outside its known range, we may want to keep an eye on it purely for academic purposes.”
The school was launched at North Carolina State University in 2011, a collaboration between Lucky and Rob Dunn, a biology assistant professor. Then last semester, Lucky took a position with UF’s entomology and nematology department. Though the North Carolina branch will remain active, Lucky says she’s thrilled to relocate the project headquarters to Florida, which has more ant species than any other state.
“We want to really focus on Florida,” Lucky said. “The ant populations are so diverse, and we’re eager to get a handle on what’s here.”
The Sunshine State is home to about 150 native ants and 50 more that came from other places, she said, including the notorious red imported fire ant.
Scientists often have a poor understanding of ant distribution at the city or county level, even for pest species that regularly attract human attention, Lucky said. One reason is that many ant species are difficult to identify, but School of Ants solves that problem by assigning the task to entomologists who specialize in ants.
The school’s biggest accomplishment thus far was showing that the invasive Asian needle ant had spread beyond its original stomping grounds in North Carolina and became established in Wisconsin, New York and Washington state. The voracious pest wipes out native ant populations in hardwood forests and packs a painful sting.
“This is the kind of thing citizen science can accomplish, because you have so many eyes and so many hands out there working,” Lucky said.
Volunteers can register on the school’s website, http://www.schoolofants.org, and follow its instructions on collecting ant specimens and mailing them in, along with data including the location and time the ants were collected.