My First Ant

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10 years old (1951)
An Ant That Triggered My Interest
In Natural History & Biology

by Wayne P. Armstrong 21 Nov 2013
During the early 1950's I spent many hours each day observing various insects and spiders at my home in Arcadia, CA. I was especially interested in an ant colony at the edge of a Bermuda grass lawn in my backyard. The major and minor workers became agitated with the slightest disturbance and gave off a distinctive odor. Unfortunately, most of the ant species I observed as a child in suburban southern CA have been replaced by the ubiquitous Argentine ant supercolony. Now that I am in my 70's, I decided to study ants again, and hopefully identify the ant species I played with as a child, especially those marvelous ants in my backyard.

On November 19, 2013, I finally confirmed the identity of the ants that sparked my interest in natural history more than 60 years ago. They were big-headed ants of the genus Pheidole. I base my conclusions on a nest that I recently discovered on Owens Peak in San Marcos, CA. Not only do the workers have the same general size, shape and color, they even emit the same peculiar odor when agitated that I clearly remember as a child. I was an avid collector of "kinds of things," including rocks, sea shells, pine (conifer) cones, bullet shells (casings), match books, and even nails. But I truly believe that the big-headed ants that fascinated me during my formative years were a major factor leading to a career in biology. I am dedicating this page to them.

Pheidole is the largest genus of ants with a worldwide distribution, especially the tropics. It is certainly an evolutionary success story, both ecologically and in terms of species diversity, with more than 1100 described species. In his book Pheidole in the New World (2003), E.O. Wilson describes 625 species, including 818 pages and 650 illustrations. There is a marked difference in the worker caste sizes (majors and minors). Majors have an unusually large head in proportion to their body. In fact, this group is often referred to as "big-headed ants." Ants are such a diverse and complex group of insects that a subdivision of entomology called myrmecology is dedicated solely to ants. Pheidole is such an enormous and complex genus that a subdivision of myrmecology called pheidology is dedicated soley to members of this genus. In fact, one who studies big-headed ants is a pheidologist!

Year Of
Ant #1
Arcadia, CA
Ant #2
Arcadia, CA
Ant #3
Arcadia, CA
Ant #4
Arcadia, CA
Age 10, 1951
Argentine Ant
(Edge of Lawn)
Hopping Ant
(Neighbor's Tree)
Big Red Ant
(Open Field)
Red & Black Ant
(Sidewalk Crack)
Age 75, 2016
Big-Headed Ant
Field Ant
Harvester Ant
Fire Ant
4 Ants That I Played With & Misidentified At Age 10

Images Of 2 Pheidole Species Using Photoshop Poster Filter

Big-Headed Ants (Pheidole vistana) Inside My Uncle Milton Ant Farm


Pheidole vistana is a polygynous species with multiple queens. Image shows ventral (lower) side and dorsal (upper) side of two queens with eggs. Note the three primitive simple eyes (ocelli) on head of right queen. Photo taken inside the ant farm.

Images Of Ghost Ant Pheidole vistana On Owen's Peak

Technical Identification Of A Minor Worker

Note: I originally thought this was a species of Aphaenogaster because of the slender body with long legs and pair of dorsal spines on the propodeum. According to Alex Wild (personal communicatiion, October 2013) it is Pheidole vistana. The form of the mesosoma and the collar around the base of the head are diagnostic for this species. Pheidole has a 3-segmented antennal club, although it is slender in P. vistana. Aphaenogaster does not have an antennal club. Both genera belong to the tribe Pheidolini.

They have been called "ghost ants" because in dim light the long, thin legs of foraging minors are not seen, and the bodies appear to be floating above the surface. I have seen pieces of Nature Valley granola moving this way across the surface of boulders on Owens Peak.

Close-up view of a minor worker.

Pheidole in the New World: A Dominant, Hyperdiverse Ant Genus by Edward O. Wilson. The book includes 624 species just in the genus Pheidole, with an estimated 1500 species worldwide!

Criteria For A Good Ant Macro Image

As a biologist who has spent his entire career keying out plants and insects, I have a definite opinion on what factors constitute a good macro image of an ant. It seems to me that the image should clearly show as much detail (taxonomic features) as possible. An expert should be able to identify or at least narrow down the possible species by viewing an image. Here are a few of my criteria: (1) Live ants make better subjects, so the image must be taken with electronic flash to stop motion. I have had good results with 1/200 sec, although faster shutter speeds are preferable. I simply track the ants in a white dish and take multiple images in burst mode. They often pause, so 1/200 works fine if you are patient. (2) A good diffuser must be used to reduce or eliminate hot spots produced by the flash. Some reflection is acceptable on shiny surfaces, but too many hot spots eliminate critical details of the ant. I have good results with a simple, inexpensive Opteka diffuser that fits over my Nikon SB-400 external flash. These items are small and easy to carry in a camera bag. (3) Sharp focusing with a sufficient f-stop setting. I prefer f-22, although some photographers recommend lower f-stops because of diffraction. To me, it is more important to have a higher depth of field in order to get antennal segments and tarsal segments in focus. I am sure that photographers have different opinions on this. In the following image you can count the 12 antennal segments including scape and 3-segmented club. These factors alone separate Pheidole from Aphaenogaster.

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