AntWatch: Ant Identification Center

Biologists classify organisms to uncover evolutionary relationships among organisms. A system of naming, or taxonomy, is necessary to keep this system organized. The taxonomic classification system consists of a hierarchy of categories that are nested within each other from larger to smaller categories. For instance, all ants are in the family Formicidae, which is a small subgroup of the order Hymenoptera, consisting of all bees, wasps and ants. We can understand a lot about ants by understanding they are descended from a common ancestor to the bees and wasps. Many ants have a venomous sting, just like many (but not all!) bees and wasps.

We can look at an example, our usual suspect the little fire ant:

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Arthropoda

Class: Insecta

Order: Hymenoptera

Family: Formicidae
Genus: Wasmannia
Species: auropunctata

The last two categories comprise the Latin binomial or specific epithet, of a species. This is unique to this one species; no other organism on earth shares this exact combination of names. It is usually underlined or italicized, with the Genus capitalized and the species underlined. All of these names have Latin or Greek roots that refer to characteristics of the group (although some species are named after people). For example, an arthropod is a joint-legged animal (arthro=joint, pod=foot or leg). Can you think what some of the other names might mean? You can look up some roots, prefixes and suffixes.

How Can I Identify the Ants I Have Encountered?

At this point, you have probably either collected ants, or observed them. If you are observing ants, it helps to take notes about what you see. How large are the ants? Do they move slowly? Do they move in an organized manner, in lines, or do they dart around in “crazy” random movements? Use this key to ant behavior to see if you are observing the little fire ant.

If you have collected and preserved ants, either by freezing them or placing them in alcohol solution, you can examine them with a hand lens or microscope. Use your forceps to manipulate your ant samples, look at different views. Careful illustrations of what you see can help you observe structures that you may not notice otherwise. Use this key to ant structures to see if you have collected the little fire ant.

Please visit the diagrams page on this site to learn the body parts and structures of ants. For more advanced identifications, you will need to know some of these terms and structures.

**remember it is very important not to mix your samples with the ants of another student. We must know where each collection came from. Mixing samples is destroying valuable data!

Eventually, we hope to create a web key to all the ants in Hawai`i. One difficulty is that we continue to discover new introduced species, so the key continues to change! For now, you can peruse pictures of some common ants you may find.