By: Jerry L. Cook, Sean T. O’Keefe, S. Bradleigh Vinson and Bastiaan M. Drees
Ants belong to the family of insects called Formicidae and are in the order Hymenoptera,which also includes bees, sawflies, and wasps. There are over 291 species of ants (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) in Texas (see The Common Ant Genera of Texas, a full-color identification key to the common ant genera of Texas).
Most ant species are not considered to be pests. They are, in fact, beneficial insects that prey upon other insects, collectively till more soil when making their nests than do earthworms, and are important parts of our ecosystem. We now recognize that the preservation of certain native ant species is our best defense against abnormally high populations of the red imported fire ant, Solenopsis invicta Buren (see Natural Enemies of Fire Ants).
Identification of properly preserved ant specimens is not difficult with a good magnifying lens or dissecting microscope and light source. The ant identification keys presented below are in both written and illustrated forms. In either case, begin at the top of the key and compare the options presented in the first couplet (a pair of statements or illustrations) to the specimen’s characteristics. Choose the one that matches the specimen and proceed down the key until you find the proper identification.
These keys were prepared for common ant species found in and around the home and considered to be pests. You may not be able to identify some specimens or rare species using this set of keys, although they may be identified as belonging to a particular group of species. The illustration below provides the identification terms used in this key.
NOTE: The genus, Paratrechina, has been revised and although the black crazy ant, P. longicornis, remains in this genus, this couplet may also key out Nylanderis species, such as the Tawny (Rasberry) or tawny crazy ant, (N. fulira fulva), found in localized infestations of over 20 Texas counties from 2000 to 2012. See Urban Entomology to download an Ant Sample Submission Form to submit ant samples for identification to the Texas A&M University Center for Structural and Urban Entomology.
There are six known species of fire ants (Solenopsis species of the geminata group) in the United States, five of which are found in Texas. Of these, four are native species and the fifth is the accidentally introduced red imported fire ant. Another imported species, the black imported fire ant (Solenopsis richteri) does not live in Texas (see Geographic Distribution of Fire Ants). Although the four native species are called fire ants, they are much less aggressive and numerous than the imported species.
The first question is whether or not you have fire ants. If the ants are aggressive, at least 3 millimeters long, and rapidly run up any object placed into their nest, they are probably fire ants. If they try to bite and sting the object, then it is a good bet they are fire ants. To confirm, look at the region between the epinotum and gaster (Fig 1), and if two nodes (petiole and postpetiole) are present and the antennal club is two-segmented, then they are fire ants.
Identifying the specific species of fire ant is easier if you have access to a microscope and a good light source. Many of the features used to identify fire ants to species are small and hard to see. To use this identification key, examine at least six to 10 major workers (the larger, wingless worker ants in a colony) because the character (key features) used for identification might not be fully developed in all individuals of the colony; they are easiest to see on the major workers.
Examining only one worker may lead to an incorrect identification. To use the identification key, begin at the top and compare the options in the first pair of statements and illustrations to the specimen(s) you have. Choose the figure and statement that matches the specimen(s) you have and then proceed down the key until the ant is properly identified.
Red imported fire ant (Solenopsis invicta Buren).
Only the red imported fire ant has a median clypeal tooth and a striated mesepimeron (see figures), although these may be difficult to see at first. Other characters that might help in the identification include: 1) the antennal scape nearly reaches the vertex, 2) the postpetiole is constricted at the back half, and 3) the petiolar process is small or absent. The red imported fire ant is widespread in the eastern two-thirds of the state and has also been found around El Paso.
Tropical fire ant (Solenopsis geminata [Fabricius]).
The most distinguishing characteristic of this species is the relatively larger, parallel-sided head with a deep, median, lengthwise groove down the middle of the vertex. Other features that might help in the identification include: 1) smaller or absent petiolar process (also not found in the red imported fire ant) and 2) the antennal scape goes only about halfway to the vertex. Tropical fire ants were once widespread in the eastern half of the state and central Hill Country, but are quickly being replaced by red imported fire ants.
Southern fire ant (Solenopsis xyloni McCook).
Of all the native fire ants, the southern fire ant looks the most like the red imported fire ant. The southern fire ant can be identified by its brown to black color, well-developed petiolar process, and no median clypeal tooth. The southern fire ant is widespread throughout the eastern, southern, and southwestern parts of Texas. Genetic methods are now available for more accurate identification if only minor workers are available.
Desert fire ants (Solenopsis aurea Wheeler and Solenopsis amblychila Wheeler).
Both of these species are yellowish-red to reddishyellow (whereas all other fire ants are light to dark brown) and have a well-developed petiolar process. Both species are found in desert areas in western Texas.
Hung, A., Barlin, M. R., and Vinson, S. B.1977.Texas Agricultural Experiment Station No. 1185.
O’Keefe, S. T., J. L. Cook, T. Dudek, D. F.Wunneburger, M. D. Guzman, R. N. Coulson, and S. B. Vinson. 2000. “The Distribution of Ants in Texas.” Southwestern Entomologist, Supplemental Issue No. 22. 92 pages. Posted at http://sswe.tamu.edu.
Trager, J. C. 1991. “A Revision of the Fire Ants Solenopsis geminator Group (Hymenoptera: Formicidae: Myrnicinae).” Journal of the New York Entomological Society, 99(2): 141–198.
Vinson, S. B., S. O’Keefe and J. Cook. 2003. The Common Ant Genera of Texas. B-6138. Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service and Texas A&M AgriLife Research, The Texas A&M University System. 44 pages. Posted at http:// agrilifebookstore.org/product-p/b-6138.htm
The Common Ant Genera of Texas www.agrilifebookstore.org/product-p/b-6138. Htm
Natural Enemies of Fire Ants www.extension.org/pages/30546/naturalenemies-Of-fire-ants Urban Entomology urbanentomology.tamu.edu
Ant Sample Submission Form urbanentomology.tamu.edu/pdf/forms/AntIDform.pdf
Texas A&M University Center for Structural and Urban Entomology Urbanentomology.tamu.edu
Geographic Distribution of Fire Ants www.extension.org/pages/9725/geographicdistribution- Of-fire-ants
Managing Red Imported Fire Ants in Urban Areas www.extension.org/pages/11004/managingimportedfire-ants-in-urban-areas-printableversion
Broadcast Baits for Fire Ant Control www.agrilifebookstore.org/product-p/e-628.htm
Fire Ant Control: The Two-Step Method and Other Approaches www.agrilifebookstore.org/product
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