Salton Sea Part 4
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Salton Sea January 2015 Part 4
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Honeypot Ants (Myrmecocystus) North Of Salton Sea: For Latest ID See Addendum

Alex Wild includes images of three species of Myrmecocystus with reddish-orange heads and black abdomens (gasters) on his website: M. depilis (Portal, AZ), M. mendax (Chiricahua Mts, AZ), and M. mimicus (Sycamore Cyn, AZ). The latter species also occurs at Carrizo Plain National Monument, CA and Green Valley, AZ. The three species superficially resemble the following images of honeypot ants I observed north of Salton Sea State Park.

Myrmecocystus mexicanus has been reported from the Salton Sea, but this species has an amber-colored head and body. It has also been reported from 5,185 ft Keys View (Salton View Overlook) in nearby Joshua Tree National Park. Alex Wild includes images of this species from the Mojave Desert, CA plus images of two additional amber-colored species: M. navajo (Wilcox, AZ) and M. testaceus (Mojave Desert, CA). He also includes another species from sand dune areas of the Mojave Desert with a black head and body (M. tenuinodis). I have photographed M. mexicanus (or M. navajo) from Holbrook, AZ.

Entrance to honeypot ant nest (Myrmecocystus) surrounded by six 50 caliber belt links all collected nearby. This area was obviously a military training site many years ago.

    According to Pinau Merlin (A Field Guide To Desert Holes, 2003): "Honeypot ant nests are hard to define, with no distinctive shape and no cone. The entrance hole is about 2 inches in diameter, and could be mistaken for a harvester ant hole."

In my opinion, harvester ant nests (Messor and Pogonomyrmex) usually have a distinct crater-like cone covered on the outside with dense layer of seedless husks from nearby shrubs and wildflowers. Myrmecocystus nests may have just a opening in the sand, or resemble shallow craters. Depending on the species and age of the colony, the crater-like nests of some Myrmecocystus can be quite distinct.

Old 50 caliber Browning Machine Gun (.50 BMG) casing (shell) and 50 caliber link found in the sand near harvester ant nests on north side of Salton Sea. The steel links interlock and join the 50 caliber cartridges into a linked belt. The U.S. penny (one cent) is 19 mm (0.76 in) or about 3/4 of an inch in diameter. The rusty belt links and casings indicate that this was a military training area many decades ago.

Swarming Honeypot Ant Colony With Winged Adults

Workers Attracted To Tissue Paper Soaked In Sugar Water

Honeypot workers (Myrmecocystus) on tissue soaked in sugar solution.

What Is The Species Of Myrmecocystus North Of Salton Sea?

Based upon Antwiki Myrmecocystus Species Groups and Antwiki Key To Myrmecocystus Species (Both Accessed 8 February 2015) this species belongs to the Mimicus Group in the subgenus Endiodioctes:

    These are medium-sized species in which the head and thorax of the worker are extensively brownish, the frons and occiput are smooth and shiny and the third tergum is without conspicuous appressed pubescence. The malar area has few or no erect hairs. This group ranges from Trans-Pecos Texas to California and south to central Mexico. The two species appear to be largely scavengers and also gather large quantities of nectar and honeydew; repletes are known for both. These are primarily lowland species, but follow alluvial fans onto the lower slopes of desert mountain ranges. Nests are often situated at the base of a shrub or amidst a clump of grasses. Tumuli thus are often somewhat irregular. When nests are located in open areas, the tumulus is most often a low, broad, regular crater.
In the "Key To Species" it appears to follow the couplet: Less hairy species: fewer than 20 erect hairs on malar area in frontal view, usually fewer than 6; scape and femora often sparsely hairy; third tergum often sparsely pubescent; HW of major less than 1.7 mm. This appears to be a medium-sized species compared with larger harvester ants (Pogonomyrmex), long-legged ants (Aphaenogaster) and carpenter ants (Camponotus). I find the hariness characteristics difficult to follow, particularly the degree of hairiness. This is probably because I haven't seen all the other species to compare with this one.

I decided to compare the species of Myrmecocystus north of the Salton Sea with another species from the mouth of Cave Creek Canyon (Chiricahua Mtns) near Portal, Arizona. The Portal species is larger, has a darker head (not as reddish), and has more erect hairs in malar area and on head. In my opinion, it does not appear to be abundantly hairy (densely pubescent) as reported in Antwiki for the Melliger Group (including M. melliger, M. mendax and M. placodops). They are all active predators and scavengers, especially on other arthropods. In my pitfall trap several of these Portal species attacked a solpugid (see following image). M. mendax has been reported from Portal, along with M. placodops. M. melliger is reported from Cave Creek.

Honeypot ants (Myrmecocystus) from Portal, Arizona (near the mouth of Cave Creek Canyon). Several species of honeypot ants are known from this area, including Myrmecocystus mendax, M. depilis, and M. mimicus. Other spp. of Myrmecocystus in Portal & Cave Creek Canyon (according to M. mexicanus, M. melliger, M. placodops, and M. testaceus.

Several species of Myrmecocystus occur in the Salton Sea area. The species with the brighter red head may be M. mendax. It resembles M. mendax from Portal, Arizona identified by James Trager.

Myrmecocystus sp. and solpugid caught in a pitfall trap near Portal, Arizona

Addendum: Identification of Myrmecocystus North Of The Salton Sea

In conclusion, I am uncertain about the common bicolored Myrmecocystus (subgenus Endiodioctes) ants north of the Salton Sea. There may be more than one species. Myrmecocystus mimicus is common in southern California and this may be that species; however, the very similar M. flaviceps has been reported from this area. I have one photo of a honeypot ant from Box Canyon North of Mecca and the Salton sea that appears to be M. flaviceps. Tergum III has densely appressed hairs and the gaster is dull black compared with the glossy black gaster of M mimicus. M. flaviceps has been reported from Mecca, North of the Salton Sea, Joshua Tree National Park (Cottonwood Campground), Deep Canyon near Palm Desert, and the Algodones Dunes!

Correction: Tergum I In My Labeled Images Is Actually Tergum III

If you count the propodeum as tergum (tergite) I and petiole as tergum II, then the first tergum of expanded abdomen (gaster) is tergum III or tergum IV depending on whether there are one or two petiole nodes.

Myrmecocystus mimicus From Tehachapi, CA. Gaster Shiny
Black & Tergum III Not Covered By Dense, Appressed Hairs