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                           BIG HEADED ANT

Introduction

The bigheaded ant (BHA), Pheidole megacephala (Fabricius), is a very successful invasive species that is sometimes considered a danger to native ants and has been nominated as among 100 of the "World's Worst" invaders (Hoffman 2006).

 

The BHA has been a pest in southern Florida for many years, and according to reports by pest control operators, it is becoming an even more pervasive nuisance as it displaces other ants, such as the red imported fire ant (RIFA), Solenopsis invicta Buren, and the white-footed ant Technomyrmex albipes (Fr. Smith) in some areas. It is possible that the increase in BHA infestations was augmented by several years of excessive hurricane activity (2003 to 2005) in Florida that damaged lawns and killed trees which necessitated the use of increased amounts of sod and other replacement vegetation that may have been infested with this ant (Warner, unpublished observation). The BHA does not sting or cause any structural damage, and usually does not bite unless the nest is disturbed, and even then, the bite is not painful. There are some 17 Pheidole species in Florida of which 14 are native to Florida (Deyrup 2003).

The BHA, a soil-nesting ant, is sometimes confused with subterranean termites because it may create debris-covered foraging tubes that are somewhat similar, albeit much more fragile, than termite tubes. More often these ants leave piles of loose sandy soil. Homeowners are annoyed by these "dirt piles" and by ants foraging in bathrooms, kitchens, around doors, and windows, as well as on exterior paved or brick walkways or driveways. Control of the BHA is difficult because the ant colonies are numerous and populations usually extend across property lines.


Distribution

Originally recorded from the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius (Fabricius 1793), the BHA is a widespread invasive tramp ant found in many subtropical and tropical regions throughout the world. Original reports of BHA in Florida mention Everglades, Key West and St. Augustine (Smith 1933).

 

More recently the BHA has been confirmed in Alachua, Brevard, Broward, Charlotte, Collier, Dade, Dixie, Highlands, Hillsborough, Indian River, Lee, Monroe, Palm Beach, Pinellas, Sarasota, Seminole, and Volusia Counties (Ferster et al. 2000, Deyrup 2003).

 

 

Description

Workers are dimorphic (major and minor workers). The BHA receives its common name from the large-sized head of the major worker, or "soldier." Minor workers are small (2 mm) reddish brown ants. The majors are much larger (3 to 4 mm), but only constitute about 1% of foragers. The front half of the major's head is sculptured, while the back half is smooth and shiny. The petiole (waist) of both worker forms is two-segmented and the post-petiolar node is conspicuously swollen. The antenna is twelve-segmented with a three-segmented club. The entire body is covered with sparse, long hairs. Workers have a pair of short propodeal spines (spines on waist) facing almost directly upward. There is usually a dark spot on the underside of the gaster.

Distribution

Originally recorded from the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius (Fabricius 1793), the BHA is a widespread invasive tramp ant found in many subtropical and tropical regions throughout the world. Original reports of BHA in Florida mention Everglades, Key West and St. Augustine (Smith 1933).

 

More recently the BHA has been confirmed in Alachua, Brevard, Broward, Charlotte, Collier, Dade, Dixie, Highlands, Hillsborough, Indian River, Lee, Monroe, Palm Beach, Pinellas, Sarasota, Seminole, and Volusia Counties (Ferster et al. 2000, Deyrup 2003).

 

 

 

Description
Workers are dimorphic (major and minor workers). The BHA receives its common name from the large-sized head of the major worker, or "soldier." Minor workers are small (2 mm) reddish brown ants. The majors are much larger (3 to 4 mm), but only constitute about 1% of foragers. The front half of the major's head is sculptured, while the back half is smooth and shiny. The petiole (waist) of both worker forms is two-segmented and the post-petiolar node is conspicuously swollen. The antenna is twelve-segmented with a three-segmented club. The entire body is covered with sparse, long hairs. Workers have a pair of short propodeal spines (spines on waist) facing almost directly upward. There is usually a dark spot on the underside of the gaster.

Similar Ants in Florida

The red imported fire ant is sometimes confused with the BHA, but the red imported fire ant has polymorphic (many sized) workers and the BHA is dimorphic. (See nest differences below.) When disturbed, the red imported fire ant is highly aggressive and will bite and sting, while the BHA bites but does not sting. The BHA is slightly smaller, darker colored, and less shiny than RIFA. Both nest in the soil.

Life Cycle

As with all ants, the BHA has complete metamorphosis (holometabolous). Colonies can have large numbers of fertile queens (Wilson 2003) and year-round brood production in tropical and sub-tropical areas. In some areas, colonies can form a "virtually continuous supercolony that excludes most other ant species" (Wilson 2003). Although Vanderwoude et al. (2000) report that in Australia dispersal of new colonies is through budding without a nuptial flight, in south Florida nuptial flights of alates (winged reproductives) can be observed during the winter and spring (Scheffrahn, unpublished observations). Fertilized queens shed their wings and find a nest site where they will begin laying eggs

Nest Sites

The BHA can be found nesting in disturbed soils, lawns, flowerbeds, under objects, such as bricks, cement slabs, or flower pots, around trees or water pipes, along the base of structures, and walkways, where displaced soil is usually observed from the action of ants digging below the surface. Well-cared-for lawns may have BHA infestations that are less noticeable, except along the edges where lawns meet walkways where piles of soil are often deposited. BHA populations expand into neighboring areas by following along these lawn-walkway edges or roadways. Population movements into new areas to establish nests and subsequent displacement of other ant populations can be rapid (Hoffman 2006; Warner, unpublished observations).
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