Tree Ants

This article is an excerpt form the book called “Wonderments Of The East Bay” by “Sylvia Linsteadt and Malcolm Margolin“. “Tree Ants” is an article that focuses on the ants of the east bay, how it affects the trees and how is it different from ants from other areas.


A terrible war is being waged in our waged in our backyards.  The belligerents:  the diverse native ant populations and the invading legions of Argentine ants (Linepithema humile).

Tree Ants
Tree Ants

In the early 1890s, a founding population of Argentine ants was accidently carried from South America into New Orleans by coffee freighters.  Since then, these ants have gone on to become one of the most successful invasive species of the modern world.  Thriving in Mediterranean climates, massive populations have sprouted up in Japan, the Mediterranean proper, and here in California, where they first arrived in 1907.  The San Francisco Bay Area is at the heart of an Argentine ant super colony dubbed “The California Large,” Which is measured in the hundreds of billions of ants and stretches for more than five hundred miles.  While most ant species operate at the hive level and quarrel with neighboring nests, Argentine ants are so genetically homogenous that ants from far-removed hives will greet each other as sisters.  When each nest contains hundreds of thousands of individuals and several reproductive queens, it becomes clear how vast networks arise. 

Surprisingly, the Argentine ant has been able to wrest control of California from our incumbent ants.  Argentine ants are small their workers a paltry three millimeters-whereas among the more than one hundred species of ants native to the East Bay are some large and ferocious competitors.  Carpenter ants of the genus Cam-ponotus are several times the size of Argentine ants and possess a terrifying bite.  John Muir wrote, “I fancy that a bear or wolf bite is not to be compared with it.  A quick electric flame of pain flashes along the outraged nerves, and you discover for the first time how great is the capacity for sensation you are possessed of.” Perhaps more insidious are our local polyergus ants, which raid the nests of lesser Formica species, stealing eggs and larvae and coercing their new slaves to maintain their nests.  On occasion, a Formica queen is even held hostage, controlled by a polyergus queen until she lays a sufficient number of eggs, after which she is dispatched.  Also included in our local palette of ants are centipede-hunting specialists, spider-egg robbers, and even fungus farmers.

This colorful diversity has been the undoing of our native ants.  Different species are more enemy than ally and have coexisted by niche partitioning.  Faced with the onslaught of Argentine ants, our fractured native ants, for all their individual feistiness, are simply overrun.  Argentine ants march ever forward.

Michael Drake

While Argentine ants dominate human-disturbed environments, like suburban awns, our Regional parks have become a bastion for native California ants.  Native ant populations can still be found in virtually all protected wilderness areas of the East Bay Regional Parks.

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