A carpenter ant is helping to hollow out the colony nest in a rotting log.

About a month ago, we seemed to be invaded with ants of several species. We would find them in various places throughout the house and piled up against the front door. Others in our community were complaining about the same thing, wondering what to do about it.

When our worlds collided inside the house, there was little mercy on our part. Knowing that some ants are fond of boring into wood, I was concerned that a satellite colony might establish itself in our framing or logs supporting our porches. I also thought of our friends in Houston, Texas, and the recent photos they sent of a recent tangle with tiny fire ants. Not pretty.

You can find native species of ants everywhere on Earth with the following exceptions: Antarctica, Greenland, Iceland, Hawaiian Islands and parts of Indonesia. They have been around for at least 150 million years, really flourishing after the advent of flowering plants. Currently, about 13,800 species of ants have been classified.

As a group, ants are wildly successful. They have adapted to most ecosystems and, although most are predators, have formed commensal, parasitic and mutualistic relationships as well. It is estimated that ants form 15-25 percent of terrestrial animal biomass. The late E.O. Wilson, Harvard professor emeritus who studied ants for his entire career, estimated that there are about one million ants for each and every person on Earth, with a total of between one and ten quadrillion ants (a quadrillion is one million billions).

Ant success is based partly on their highly eusocial society (Encyclopedia Britannica: Eusocial--of an animal species, especially an insect, showing an advanced level of social organization, in which a single female or caste produces the offspring and nonreproductive individuals cooperate in caring for the young). Give a colony of ants a pile of dirt or a rotting log and within a week, they will have a community and a below ground sky scraper or log-based cruise ship in ant dimensions. The secret is the division of labor—there may be workers hollowing out tunnels, soldiers defending the garrison, nursemaids caring for the helpless young, foragers bringing home the groceries, multiple queens intent on reproduction, queen attendants and more, depending on the species. In this caste system, it is the colony that counts, not the individual and being ant-sized is mitigated by numbers. And, according to Arizona State University, “Despite her size and royal title, the queen doesn’t boss the workers around. Instead, workers decide which tasks to perform based on personal preferences, interactions with nestmates, and cues from the environment.” Oh, and they are all female.

Ants are also successful because of their ability to change their habitat to suit them. Many species construct complex nests in the ground, in logs on the ground or in standing dead trees. Engineering solutions within nests that some species attain include temperature control, air flow, food storage and sanitation. Lemon ants sting and kill all the vegetation around a nest except for the lemon ant tree. Harvester ants clear away all vegetation from around the opening of their nest in areas large enough to be easily visible from aircraft. Carpenter ants tunnel through wood, turning it into dust. Thatch mound ants create huge piles of pine needles and build their nest within and below it. Overall, the incessant habitat modification means that they play a critical role in the natural circle of life, water percolation through soil and more.

As members of the same order as bees, wasps and hornets, some ants do have stingers. One, the jack jumper ant of Australia, is extremely toxic and can be fatal. Also, the most painful insect sting in the world is that of the bullet ant of Central and South America. It usually isn’t fatal, but you may wish you were dead for a while after an encounter. However, most ants use their formidable jaws for a painful bite and spray formic acid when threatened.

With so many species and behaviors, understanding ants is a monumental task. If you get the chance though, rather than stepping on them, take the time to watch for a while. You might be surprised by what such simple creatures can teach you.

Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho