By Guy Webster
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These feisty critters creep and crawl in back yards and now star in their own movie.
Ants show such diversity that it's funny the animated movie about them centers on one type that doesn't exist: a male worker ant.
"Worker ants are all females," said Arizona State University biologist Steve Rissing when he heard the plot's premise. "But if there were a male worker, maybe he would be like Woody Allen."
In the movie Antz, Woody Allen provides the voice for the blue-collar hero. It is a romantic comedy fantasy, not a nature documentary, so it would be unfair to judge it on its scientific merit. But perhaps Antz will increase interest in ants. It is worth a look at the antics of a few Arizona varieties. After all, Arizona has more ant species than any other state, with about 40 more than second-ranked California.
Arizona: The Ant State
"We're at 286 and counting," biologist Bob Johnson said while pulling out a drawer full of pinned specimens in ASU's insect collection. "We're adding new ones all the time." Some ants store sweet liquid for their colonymates in rotund bodies that swell to the size of small grapes. Other ants raise underground fungus gardens or turn unrelated colonies into slaves.
Johnson and Harvard University's Stefan Cover discovered two previously unknown species just last month during a collecting trip near Prescott. Johnson even found a new species literally in his own back yard.
It and the 15 or so other ant species in his yard are likely common in yards throughout the Valley, he said. The new one is tiny and nocturnal, so it had gone unnoticed. Johnson spotted some workers from the new species gathering cookie crumbs.
Besides back yards, the desert mountain parks around the Valley make good ant-watching sites. Each acre of desert holds an estimated half million or more ants. Some stay underground most of the time, but emerge after rains. "So many interesting things happen after a rain in the desert," Rissing said. "I wish more people would get out and appreciate it."
Learn more about some of the ants that live in or near the Valley.