Ants are tough, tiny and organized insects that seem to find their way into every home. Now you can identify which species is in your midst by visiting the interactive website Antkey.
The website includes more than 1,150 images and 70 video clips to help you determine an ant’s identity from more than 100 invasive and commonly introduced global species.
Homeowners, farmers, business people and even just insect buffs can all benefit from the new site. In terms of farming and other businesses, ant infestations are common and can lead to costly damage. Ants from Mexico, for example, often hitch a ride on the $1 billion in U.S./Mexico cross-border commerce. Once in the states, the ants settle in and can harm the agricultural economy.
The problem is so pervasive that the U.S. Department of Agriculture inspects nearly all cross-border commerce for pests. If an ant infestation is detected, the current protocol is to send a sample to the U.S. Entomological Collection in Washington, D.C., where curators decide if the ants pose a threat.
Much of this research time and money might be cut thanks to the easy-to-use Antkey.
Andy Suarez, a University of Illinois professor of entomology and of animal biology, developed the web resource with postdoctoral researcher Eli Sarnat. Their goal was to help non-specialists in quarantine and border facilities around the United States make the process of ant identification faster and more efficient.
Typical taxonomic keys made for specialists use scientific jargon and specify features that can only be seen under a microscope. It's therefore often hard for non-specialists to identify ant species.
Antkey uses a more interactive system called a “lucid key” to make the process easier.
“With a lucid key, you could put in two or three different descriptive pieces of information and then all of the species in the key that don’t match that description are removed and the key changes to show only what’s left,” Suarez was quoted as saying in a press release.
The key then asks specific questions that help users differentiate between the remaining species.
As researchers learn more about the invasive ant species becoming established in the U.S., Antkey will continue to add new entries and improve on its already user friendly service.
“In the future, by incorporating more resources like video and pictures and making the key simpler, in theory, anyone who is an enthusiast or a concerned farmer or homeowner can actually figure out what all the ants that might be infesting their property are,” Suarez said.