Ant Collector Matthew Skelley
Gainesville, Florida
Photo credit: Lucille Skelley

When we think about developing affinity for nature in cities, insects in general and ants in particular may not be the first thing to come to mind. Dr. Andrea Lucky and her research team at the University of Florida, in collaboration with Dr. Rob Dunn at North Carolina State University, are entering their third summer of the School of Ants project, studying the diversity of ants living in urban areas. What they have found might change your mind about the role of ants and other insects as part of a biophilic city.

Dr. Lucky explains that while some people think of ants only as pests, their ubiquity often works in their favor, inspiring people’s curiosity in them: “people are aware of ants – everybody has observed ants, even if they wouldn’t call it that themselves, everybody knows that they move in lines, is vaguely aware of the fact that they are social, there is a queen, they have wars. Even if people don’t acknowledge it directly, it doesn’t take much to elicit a sense of curiosity and flip what might be aversion into an interest for most people.” This is particularly true for children, and Lucky explains that children are some of the most enthusiastic participants in the citizen science aspects of the School of Ants project. Here’s how it works: prospective participants register on the School of Ants website, create their own simple kit (index cards, pecan sandies, and ziplock bags) for collecting ants in their neighborhood, freeze any ants collected overnight, then send the ants to Dr. Lucky’s lab for identification and conversion into museum-quality specimens. Check out this terrific short video of kids demonstrating the process, step-by-step.

Since the project began in August 2011, the researchers have received about 1,000 submissions of ants from around the country (see the School of Ants map for current coverage). Of these, Lucky estimates that about 600 are high enough quality for inclusion in the study. When the research team receives the ants, they first attempt to identify common species if possible, saving their “mysteries” for taxonomic experts. As part of this effort, Lauren Nichols created a unique urban ant key to assist with identifying common species in North Carolina. One of the current projects the team is working on is a comparative study between three cities: New York City, Chicago, and the Raleigh-Durham area. While results are still being analyzed, one of the most interesting aspects of the study for Lucky is that a large number of the urban ants they are identifying are native: “We think of a lot of invasive ants, but there are a lot of native species we find in the environments we create, in sidewalk cracks, lawns, etc. I think when people start realizing that there is a whole native community of these insects living around them, they actually start to get quite interested to see what is there.”

One aspect of the project Dr. Lucky receives a lot of questions about is the need for participants to freeze the ants. Lucky acknowledges in the School of Ants frequently asked questions that this isn’t for everyone, and draws a comparison between samples of worker ants and “leaves on a tree,” emphasizing that entire colonies are not destroyed through collection of a small sample. The School of Ants project is intended to capture diversity of ant populations all over the country, and citizens who participate in the collection process are greatly extending the reach of the study, enabling what Lucky calls “ant ecology on a large scale.” At the same time, studying, collecting, and identifying the ants living around us is an opportunity for people of all ages to get closer to and better understand the nature right outside our doors (or in the case of ants, sometimes inside our doors!). Aidan Thompson, a 6-year-old bug lover who collected ants with his grandmother during the School of Ants project’s work in Chicago last summer, says “I was really amazed, because I never knew so many ants could be on one giant cookie!” (See Aidan and others in this video by Northwestern News Network).

Other citizen science projects abound, such as Cornell University’s Map Your Yard and NestWatch programs, the first ever BioBlitz last spring in Portland, Oregon’s Forest Park, and the National Wildlife Federation’s Wildlife Watch, among others. But the School of Ants project is raising awareness about some of the smallest and most common creatures that are around us all the time and quite easy to recognize. Dr. Lucky and others working on the project hope that their work will continue to increase the “natural connection” between people and ants. Lucky’s vision for the project going forward will be to tackle questions not only of the lives of ants and their impact on people, but also how we are changing insects around us by the shape of our cities.

Julia Triman, Biophilic Cities Project Researcher 

Julia is a masters candidate in Urban and Environmental Planning at the University of Virginia.