The Hidden Dangers of Botany

Pursuit of botany starts off innocently enough: maybe you are a gardener interested in learning about plant biology, maybe you are a survivalist wanting to learn about edible plants, or maybe you are a wildlife lover who wants to attract hummingbirds to your yard. Whatever the reason, you need to make sure you are fully prepared for the havoc you may wreak upon your life.  Before you read that gardening book, click that link, or go to that native plant conference, take the time to educate yourself about the hidden dangers of botany:

  1. You can’t un-see the scenery.

Like walking in on your parents, plant identification is one of those things that you can’t un-see.  Before you learn about botany, the world around you consists of only vague categories of greenery.  Afterwards, plant scientific names practically scream themselves at you every time you go outside. Sure you might feel “more engaged with the natural world” by knowing how to properly address the surrounding flora, but once you learn those names, you will never be able to traverse the countryside in blissful botanic ignorance.

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How your brain interprets the roadside before learning botany…
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…and afterwards.
  1. You increase your risk of accidents.

Your new-found plant identification skills will also put you at greater risk for bodily harm. You may skin your knees while climbing logs to photograph ferns. Wildflowers off the side of the road may catch your eye and cause you to swerve your vehicle dangerously. Even on the water you are not safe.  Plants along the water’s edge will call you like sirens, and threaten to entrap your kayak on snags.

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Well, you see, Officer, there was this stunning patch of asters along the side of the road and…
  1. You will start to hoard plants.

Each new group of plants you learn about will become The-Most-Awesome-Plants-Ever and lead to a cycle of never-ending garden expansion.  Sure gardening is great way to exercise in the great outdoors, but you will always be tortured by the desire for “just one more plant.”

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I’m sure I can find room for these somewhere…
  1. Your relationships will be strained.

Once you learn a bit about botany you will want to share some of your knowledge with your friends and family.  Occasionally, you may wow them with fun facts about some unusually useful/poisionous/carnivorous plant, but most the time you will simply become a source of exasperation.  Your friends will roll their eyes as you point out (yet another) wildflower on your walk together, your  significant other will sigh as you bring home (yet another) species of plant to add to your over-brimming garden, and your kids will become annoyed that (yet again) you are taking so long looking at all of the plants. While vacationing, more fun loving people will want to go to overpriced theme parks, but you will be torturing your family and friends by suggesting (yet another) trip to a botanic garden.

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Come on y’all! There’s five more acres of gardens around the corner!
  1. You will want to learn more science.

Botany is the ‘gateway science’ to obsession with a wide range of natural sciences.  Once it has you in its clutches, botany may start you off on the path to wanting to learn entomology, ornithology, or, Lord-forbid, mycology.  It may even send you off into the esoteric realms of soil chemistry or meteorology.  The madness will simply compound itself.

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Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.

If, despite all these dangers, you still want to pursue botany, go right ahead. Learning botany may indeed help you grow prize-winning dahlias, get free food from your yard, or become a better steward of the earth.  Just know what you are getting into, and don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Odorous House Ants: The Ants We Gave Superpowers

Odorous house ants are near the top of the list of America’s Most Unwanted Insects.  Although scientists commonly refer to them as Tapinoma sessile, most people know them as ‘sugar ants’, or more colloquially, ‘piss ants’.  By any name, they are the plague of many an American kitchen from the east coast to Oregon, and, as such, most of the research on odorous house ants has been devoted to figuring out how to kill them.

There are actually several species of ants around 1/8” long that are lumped into the ‘sugar ant’ category of home invaders.  Odorous house ants can be distinguished from the rest of them by their uniform dark brown color and, as the name implies, by their distinct odor.  My colleagues Adrian Smith and Clint Penick have published an amusing study that claims the odor is akin to blue cheese, but I would counter that the smell is more similar to slightly rotten citrus.  Either way, once you have a wiff of these ants, you’ll never forget them.

Neither their home-plaguing habits nor their pungent chemistry is what inspired me to study odorous house ants for my graduate research.  I was more interested in understanding their ecology. Why?  Because something about living near humans gives these ants superpowers, and I wanted to figure out what.

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Odorous house ants with their young. Other groups of similarly-sized ants can be roughly identified by the “scratch-and-sniff test.” Argentine ants smell like musty socks, most formicine ants smell like vinegar (although one species of Lazius ants smell like citronella), and Forelius ants smell like flowery-perfume. Unfortunately, crushing the ants to smell them does not lend itself to collecting, er, intact samples. Original photo by: Janet Hurley, Bugwood.org.

When odorous house ants live out in the woods away from urban areas, they are the ant equivalent of the wimpy kid on the playground.  Their colonies are small, maybe a few hundred individuals.  Many times they have only one queen, but sometimes they have a handful of queens.  If some odorous house ant workers find a tasty dead bug and another species of ant comes along, the odorous house ants usually end up losing the fight for the food and running away.

However, when odorous house ants end up in urban areas, it’s like the wimpy kid suddenly drank Extra Strength Super Power Juice.  Odorous house ant colonies in cities grow to millions of workers in size with thousands of queens.  Such large colonies form by smaller colonies budding off of the founder colony over and over until there are huge networks of nestsites where the ants freely exchange queens and workers.  These so called “supercolonies” can function over an area of several city blocks.  Moreover, unlike in rural settings, these city-savvy ants tend to win fights over resources with other species of ants.

So what causes the change?

I thought it might be the way we modify the landscape around our homes, so I set off to do a survey of 24 urban and suburban yards looking for odorous house ants (and other urban ants).  I trapped ants in the yard, near the houses, and in garden beds away from the house.  I measured how thick the vegetation was, what the ground cover was, recorded the dominant plants, measured the amount of shade, and measured how deep any leaf litter was.  Because odorous house ants prefer to live under preexisting debris, I counted the number of potential nesting sites such as mulch, logs, rocks, and landscape timbers near where I trapped ants.

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This is what ant ecology looks like. I promise the hooka-like object I am using is really a device called an ‘aspirator’ for sucking up ant specimens. There’s a screen to make sure the ants stay in the attached vial and don’t actually get aspirated…usually.

Like many ecology research projects, I discovered much of what I spent long days meticulously measuring in the hot summer sun (while pregnant!), didn’t have any measurable relationship with odorous house ant numbers.  However, a few things did correlate with more odorous house ants being present: leaves, logs, and being close to the house.  What does this correlation mean?  Well, because this was just a survey and not an experiment, I can’t claim that any of these things cause higher number of ant, just that they might be related.  Maybe it means that odorous house ants do well in urban areas because they have more nest sites, or maybe our homes simply provide a convenient source of food or warmth.  More research involving actual experiments would need to be done to see if any of these potential causes are indeed the case.

Since my project, other researchers have continued to investigate the source of these ants success. Adam Sayler and his associates, did surveying work of ants in natural, semi-natural, and urban areas that suggests that odorous house ants may be helped by the fact that human disturbance is bad for other species for ants.  In short, odorous house ants can handle the bustle of the city, their competitors cannot.

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Odorous house ants tending scale insects. Photo by Susan Ellis, Bugwood.org.

Although not explicitly about ants, research coming out of my colleague, Steve Frank’s, lab has shown that tiny, tree sucking critters called scale insects, are more abundant in cities due to urban warming.  These insects secrete a sugary solution called “honeydew” that is used as a food source by many kinds of ants.  During the course of my research, I noticed huge trails of odorous house ants going up and down trees, presumably collecting honeydew.  Maybe the urban “hotspots” for scale insects, are helping fuel the massive colonies of odorous house ants.

Whatever the reason for their urban superpowers, it isn’t something that has happened just once.  Sean Menke and his associates found that many separate groups of odorous house ants have evolved the ability to make supercolonies in urban areas all over the US.  

So is it shelter, response to human disturbance, or heat-loving food sources that turns these ants from wimps to supervillains?  In all actuality, the secret to odorous house ant success is likely a combination of many of these factors, all of which are in some way related to the way we build our homes and maintain our yards. So the next time you grumble at the line of ants traipsing across your kitchen, keep in mind that these creatures may somehow be a monster of our own making.

Would you play Pokemon Go for science?

My son and husband have just returned from a pleasant walk around the neighborhood during which they managed to snag a Charmander, Spearow, and Scyther.  They will now take these creatures home to care for them, train them, and watch them develop.  This is, of course, not wildlife biology, but the game Pokemon Go, and it could be the start of something revolutionary for ecological research.

For those of you not familiar with the Pokemon mania that is sweeping through the population of Millennials and their progeny, this newly-released augmented reality game transforms Pokemon from something played on a screen to a real-life search for virtual creatures that can only be found by walking around outside.  To play, you actually have to go out in your yard to find grass-type Pokemon and go to the park with a pond to find water ones.

Many elements of Pokemon Go embody the things that I love about my job as an entomologist: going outside, looking for creatures, collecting them, bringing them back to learn about them, and sharing my discoveries.  Unlike the average Pokemon hunter, I don’t make the insects I bring back to the lab do battle with each other; however some of my colleagues who study ant behavior do.

The similarity of Pokemon to entomology is no coincidence, the game designer, Satoshi Tajiri, was an avid insect collector as a child, and the whole idea of battling creatures was inspired by the Japanese pastime of beetle battling.

 

Even as I am struck by the similarities between of Pokemon and my profession, I am enthralled by the idea of developing a similar game that takes Pokemon Go’s photographic creature-hunting approach to “collect” real organisms as part of a massive citizen-science based ecology project.

In my imagined game of ‘Ecology Go’ (please help me think up a catchier name) users would be sent to “scan” various birds, beasts, and bugs by photographing them with their phones.  Once scanned the user could get a cutely-drawn virtual “copy” of said creature to care for in a little electronic world on the user’s phone.  Such creatures would need virtual food or shelter which could be obtained by photographing real-life trees, flowers, and other host plants.  Of course, in addition to being fun, this game would be stealthily educational, teaching people how identify the living things that surround them, but don’t mention that part to the kids.

Meanwhile, the information from the photographs could be used by scientists interested in ecology and biogeography (the science of what organisms live where) to answer questions about how well pollinators are doing, where birds are migrating, when pests are spreading, and how all these things are impacted by land use and climate changes.

In a highly unscientific survey of user acceptance, I have run this game idea by an actual 10-year old, who said that my game idea sounded “fun to play” and who offered helpful suggestions such as “make it so you can build things for your virtual creatures” and “include slimes and dragons.” Several 30-year olds have mentioned that they would want to play too, but as all of them were biologists, take the interest level of that demographic with a grain of salt.

Although I know that image-recognition software isn’t yet up to snuff for a ‘Ecology Go’ game to exist, such a game is not so far-fetched.  Apps, like Birdsnap, are working to improve upon machine recognition of birds from photographs, and citizen science apps such as, the Lost Ladybug Project and eBird, already help scientists track the numbers of rare ladybugs and birds. While we wait for machine learning to catch up with human visual acuity, anyone who takes a screen shot of an interesting (real) creature while playing Pokemon Go can put it on Twitter with the hashtag #pokeblitz for scientists to identify.  Perhaps, the closest thing on the internet today to “Ecology Go” is Project Noah an app which gives users missions to photograph different types of plants and animals around them.

However, none of these apps and projects have the game mechanics that would give them widespread appeal to those who are not already biologically inclined.  Pokemon Go is fun because it turns your yard and neighborhood into a daily scavenger hunt.  Like the way my research provides me various incentives to collect a ton more insects that I would do on my own, Pokemon Go provides incentives for users to keep Pokemon-hunting for longer than the average person would casually search for wildlife.  An actual game-based ecology app would have the potential to connect its players more deeply to the natural world, and at the same time, give scientists the information they need to understand that world more clearly.