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MSU research uncovers unusual ant species
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- While imported fire ants are a problem across the South, most species of ants are actually beneficial -- helping to aerate soil, disperse plant seeds, control insect pest species, and aiding in the decay process of dead plants and animals.
In Mississippi, there are dozens of varieties of ants that go about their work virtually unnoticed. Identifying, studying and recording data on those ants is part of the research conducted by Mississippi State University entomologist and Mississippi Entomological Museum director Richard Brown and Joe MacGown, assistant curator of the entomological museum.
There currently are 152 identified species and subspecies of ants in Mississippi, including 25 recently identified by MacGown and entomology graduate student JoVonn Hill. Some of the recently discovered species have some unusual social structures.
"We have a species of ant in Mississippi that uses a variety of aphid as 'cows' to produce honeydew to feed on," Brown said. "The ants actually build 'barns' to house their aphid herds."
Another variety recently discovered in Winston and Oktibbeha counties raids the mounds of other ant species for pupa to raise as workers.
"This species only has reproducers and soldiers, so they can't feed themselves," Brown said. "They enslave other ants to work for them. This is one of only six slave-making species known to exist in the United States and was previously unknown in this area of the South."
The entomologists have found native species and fire ants coexisting in areas of the Tombigbee National Forest.
"It appears our native ant species are able to compete well with fire ants, especially in less disturbed areas," Brown said. "We have found as many as 31 species of native ants living in the same area as imported fire ants."
The native ant study is supported by the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station as part of research aimed at developing ways to control imported fire ants without destroying beneficial insect species.
Contact: Dr. Richard Brown, (662) 325-2085