Camponotus consobrinus

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.

One of my Camponotus consobrinus queens | David Elkins/Flickr [used with permission]

One of my Camponotus consobrinus queens | David Elkins/Flickr [used with permission]