Dr. Andrea Lucky works with a global program called Citizen Science to collect ants from around the world to study their biodiversity and evolution. Citizen Science is an interactive way for the non-science community to get involved with scientists and learn about what is in our own backyard. Lucky’s project is titled The School of Ants. In the summer of 2018, Lucky hosted the inaugural Invasive Ant Boot Camp. The 3-day short course took students around the UF campus to learn how to collect and identify ant species. “I facilitate people learning about the place they live,” Dr. Lucky said. The Field and Fork garden was one of the stops. Students found a little ant with the scientific name of Wasmannia auropunctata. Garden volunteers are now partnered with Lucky to find out how to control it on the farm.
More commonly referred to as the Little Fire Ant, this nearly microscopic ant typically inhabits tropical environments; its native land is thought to range from Argentina to Mexico. The discovery of this ant on campus, and the size of the colony, told Lucky that these critters were unusual. “When it comes to invasives, we don’t know what the rules are,” Dr. Lucky said. The Little Fire Ant is known for colonizing well and pushing out other ant species, decreasing biodiversity in the area. The tiny, firey ant also acts as a bodyguard to certain bugs that can cause damage to crops.
The Little Fire Ant can also cause problems for people and other animals in tropical and agricultural areas. The ants like to stay in trees and can drop onto people and sting them around the collar or neck. Their potent sting can cause irritation for several days at a time. In livestock, the Little Fire Ant can cause blindness.
Although a lot of the ant species in the area are considered invasive, the Little Fire Ant tends to take over an area. The colony at Field and Fork has already grown to a size that has started to decrease the diversity of insect life in the area including displacing other ant colonies. It is necessary to create a safe way to rid the area of the colony because the garden provides food to UF students.
Lucky is currently working with the local USDA office to find ways to safely eradicate Wasmannia auropunctata from the Field and Fork gardens. They are hopeful that this will allow other species of ants and bugs to return. “They are kind of adorable. I feel bad looking for ways to eradicate them,” said Lucky. It is necessary to create a safe way to rid the area of the colony because the garden provides food to UF students.