Back in the (Australian) summer of 2009/10 I didn't know I wanted to be a Myrmecologist. I didn't even know I wanted to be a Entomologist! But I had just commenced my Bachelor of Zoology degree and I found some ants I had never seen before.
At the time I was working at a Honda dealership as a personal assistant while studying part-time, and one morning I found a writhing clump of very large yellow and black ants on the floor, and I did what came naturally to me at the time: I killed them. (In hindsight this makes me feel very ashamed and sad.)
Overnight I thought a lot about these ants and convinced myself that they were a quarantine risk because we imported cars from Japan. I Googled various descriptive phrases until I found a species of ant from Japan that vaguely looked like the ants I had found. Remember, I had just started my zoological studies, so I knew nothing about identification keys, ants or even insects for that matter!
The following morning I found another one and popped it into a round takeaway container before submitting an enquiry online to the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS), telling them all about my Japanese ants that must have hitched a ride on a Honda.
I envisaged quarantine officials closing the dealership while the invasive ants were eradicated. I imagined my boss being cranky at the loss of business, but I also imagined the entire Australian population thanking me for averting a biological disaster.
I received a phone call from AQIS shortly afterwards and the woman advised me that she would arrange a vial and reply-paid envelope to be mailed to me so I could sent the ant to AQIS for identification. About a week later, the package had not arrived and my captive had now laid eggs; tiny, shiny, translucent eggs, and she was fiercely protective of them. At least I knew now it was female because, of course, back then I didn't know that the vast majority of ants we come across are female. I called the woman who assured me the vial was on its way. I told her there were now eggs. I asked her how I was supposed to put the ant in the vial. Pickle her in metho? No, something much more straightforward: "Just pop her in the freezer and she'll go to sleep." I did just that and she did just that. Soon she and her eggs were frozen stiff.
The vial arrived and I posted the ant and her tiny, shiny, translucent eggs to AQIS using the reply-paid envelope and within a week or two I received an email. She was a native ant - a queen Camponotus consobrinus. Just a big, fat version of the banded sugar ants that were everywhere and anywhere. I mean, I knew queen ants existed... I had just never seen one before.
I think it's fitting now that one of my research species is Camponotus consobrinus. It feels like I've come almost full circle in the last seven years.