Strange New England - Empire of the Ants

moundsSometimes while out on an adventure, the greatest discoveries made are the unexpected ones. Recently I had come across one of these amazing finds. I was exploring the Wickaboxet State Forest in West Greenwich Rhode Island looking for and trail to a cemetery of legend and lore. As I explored the north end of the property, I saw some fairly large mounds of dirt. At first I assumed that they were from animal borrows or maybe just remnants of decaying trees that had been exploited by termites. As I proceeded, I noticed some more along the road and the size was increasing. I decided to get a closer look and to my surprise, found that they were ant mounds.

The first mound I examined was about one and a half feet tall and nested on top of a rock. Curious to see these mbantindustrious insects that created this kingdom of soil, I took stick and opened up one side of the mound. Ants began to pour out of the breach and take posts on the perimeters while others were beginning to rebuild the wall or charge forward to ward off the enemy. I was surprised to see that these ants looked much different than any others I’ve seen before. They were a reddish brown from the head to the thorax with a shiny black abdomen (gaster). Many of the soldiers began to scurry onto my shoes and pants. With one mighty brush from my hand, they all fell back to the ground. I felt like Gulliver and they were the Lilliputians.

As I followed the road I saw that the mounds were every where. They were always found in clusters of three or four and from one foot high to as tall as three feet. The areas that the mounds occupied seemed to have been cleared of moundbig2any trees or large vegetation. I found mounds along the trail for about a mile. In all of my years of exploring New England I had never seen anything like this. I was curious as to what kind of ants they were and how so many colonies could be so close to each other and over such a large area.

When I got home I searched for answers to the many questions that had risen from this odd discovery. In a short time, I found the answers. According to Harvard University, what I had discover was a super colony of Allegheny Mound Ants (Formica exsectoides Forel). They are a native species that can be found along the Atlantic coast from Nova Scotia to Georgia. These ants are highly beneficial predators on many forest insect pest species. The nests tunnels may go as far as three feet into the soil and extend up to four feet out from the mound. A process of “budding” results in formation of new mounds as the ants spread out from the original mound. Mound-building is not the only negative aspect of these ants. They inject formic acid into plants and vegetation near deadtreethe mound. Small trees and shrubs within forty to fifty feet of large mounds can be killed. Even two to five year-old trees near large mounds are especially susceptible to damage but trees up to eight feet tall could be killed. They also will aggressively defend their colony by squirting the formic acid with their gasters tucked between their legs as they bite. It is highly recommended that you do not disturb a colony unless you are properly prepared for the onslaught of toxic warriors. This was a fact I wish I had known before I made the assault on their monarchy. Fortunately I hadn’t lingered long enough for the ants to rally enough soldiers to reprimand me for my act of vandalism. In this case, the concept of ants in my pants didn’t bring back fond memories of a child hood game.

As they say, a little bit of caution goes a long way. In my case though, dumb luck is a God send! So next time you see a curious insect hive or colony, run the other way and don’t come back until you know what you’re dealing with. I known I will!

~ Strange New England

10/29/04 Update:

While researching for future stories, I found some interesting info concerning the Wickaboxet Management Area. In the center of is a large bedrock that rises above the tree tops and offers great view of the surrounding area. I have been to the rock and can agree with this fact. Since the rock is in a very remote area and offers fantastic view, it is used by local youths as a place to gather and consume large amounts of beer. Often you can find beer cans strewed about the rock. Due to this it has been nicknamed ‘Liquor Basket Rock!’

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