Invasive Species Compendium

Detailed coverage of invasive species threatening livelihoods and the environment worldwide

Datasheet

Tapinoma melanocephalum
(ghost ant)

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Datasheet

Tapinoma melanocephalum (ghost ant)

Summary

  • Last modified
  • 08 November 2018
  • Datasheet Type(s)
  • Invasive Species
  • Pest
  • Natural Enemy
  • Preferred Scientific Name
  • Tapinoma melanocephalum
  • Preferred Common Name
  • ghost ant
  • Taxonomic Tree
  • Domain: Eukaryota
  •   Kingdom: Metazoa
  •     Phylum: Arthropoda
  •       Subphylum: Uniramia
  •         Class: Insecta
  • Summary of Invasiveness
  • T. melanocephalum is a small ant species around 1.5 mm in length originating from the Old World tropics. It is considered an invasive and “tramp” ant species: widely associated with humans, it has been moved arou...

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Pictures

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PictureTitleCaptionCopyright
Tapinoma melanocephalum; adult ants on flower petals in Fiji.
TitleAdults
CaptionTapinoma melanocephalum; adult ants on flower petals in Fiji.
CopyrightPhilip J. Lester
Tapinoma melanocephalum; adult ants on flower petals in Fiji.
AdultsTapinoma melanocephalum; adult ants on flower petals in Fiji.Philip J. Lester
Tapinoma melanocephalum; close-up of adult on flower petals in Fiji.
TitleAdult
CaptionTapinoma melanocephalum; close-up of adult on flower petals in Fiji.
CopyrightPhilip J. Lester
Tapinoma melanocephalum; close-up of adult on flower petals in Fiji.
AdultTapinoma melanocephalum; close-up of adult on flower petals in Fiji.Philip J. Lester

Identity

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Preferred Scientific Name

  • Tapinoma melanocephalum (Fabricius, 1793)

Preferred Common Name

  • ghost ant

Other Scientific Names

  • Formica familiaris F. Smith 1860
  • Formica melanocephalum Fabricius 1793
  • Formica nana Jerdon
  • Myrmica (Monomorium) pellucida F. Smith 1857
  • Tapinoma melanocephalum var. australe Santschi 1928
  • Tapinoma melanocephalum var. australis Santschi 1928

International Common Names

  • English: tramp ant

Local Common Names

  • Cuba: hormiga bottegaria
  • Japan: awate-konuka-ari
  • Puerto Rico: albaricoque
  • USA: black-headed ant; house infesting ant; tiny yellow house ant

EPPO code

  • TAPIME (Tapinoma melanocephalum)

Summary of Invasiveness

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T. melanocephalum is a small ant species around 1.5 mm in length originating from the Old World tropics. It is considered an invasive and “tramp” ant species: widely associated with humans, it has been moved around the subtropical and tropical world by human activity. This ant is also recorded in heated buildings in areas such as Canada and Finland. It is primarily a household pest, nesting in housing and consuming household food. In areas such as Florida it is considered one of the most important house-infesting pests. However it has been known to affect agricultural production in situations such as greenhouses, especially if it tends honeydew-producing insects and protects these pests from biological control organisms. T. melanocephalum is thought to be capable of transporting pathogenic microbes and is often abundant in hospitals. Some people can suffer a slight, red irritation of the skin following contact with this ant. This ant is listed on the ISSG global invasive species database.

Taxonomic Tree

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  • Domain: Eukaryota
  •     Kingdom: Metazoa
  •         Phylum: Arthropoda
  •             Subphylum: Uniramia
  •                 Class: Insecta
  •                     Order: Hymenoptera
  •                         Family: Formicidae
  •                             Genus: Tapinoma
  •                                 Species: Tapinoma melanocephalum

Notes on Taxonomy and Nomenclature

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This ant was originally described as Formica melanocephalum by Fabricius in 1793. This name was changed in 1857 to Myrmica pellucida after F. Smith was given collections from Asia by the famous A.R. Wallace; Smith gave the same ant a second genus and species name of Formica familiaris in 1860. Around this time it was also given the name Formica nana by T.C. Jerdon after collecting it in southern India. There are 63 ant species in the genus Tapinoma. The only other significant and relatively widespread pest species amongst these is Tapinoma sessile (Say) or the “odorous house ant”.

Some authors have considered “varieties” or “sub-species” of T. melanocephalum to exist. Two early attempts at describing varieties were Tapinoma (Micromyrma) melanocephalum var. australe Santschi and Tapinoma (Micromyrma) melanocephalum var. australis Santschi, but these have been subsequently considered invalid names. Current possible sub-species names occasionally used are Tapinoma melanocephalum var. coronatum Forel, and Tapinoma melanocephalum var. malesianum Forel. It remains to be determined how appropriate these sub-species designations are; opinions vary substantially amongst taxonomists.

Description

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A general description suitable for quarantine purposes is given by Harris et al. (2005), and is summarized here.

As opposed to other invasive ants, T. melanocephalum is monomorphic with an average total length around 1.5 mm, ranging between 1.3 and 1.9 mm. It is distinctively bicoloured (see pictures). The head (including antennae, except for first 2 segments), and sides of alitrunk (or upper thorax) are blackish-brown; while the dorsal alitrunk (lower thorax) and legs are a pale yellow. The gaster (abdomen) is mostly pale, sometimes with brown patches.

A more technical description suitable for quarantine purposes is as follows. Antennae are 12-segmented. First antennal segment (scape) is long, surpassing the posterior border of head. Eyes are large, with 9-10 ommatidia in the longest row. Mandibles each have 3 large teeth and about 7 small denticles, with the mandible surface containing the teeth and that near the clypeus rounding gradually into one another (basal angle absent). The clypeus is without longitudinal carinae; with the anterior margin slightly concave in the alitrunk in profile and almost smoothly convex, but with a slight metanotal depression. The propodeum is without spines; the upper surface is shorter than the rear surface. One rudimentary node (petiole) is present, which lacks a distinct forward face and is partially or completely concealed when viewed from above by forward projection of the first segment of the gaster. The gaster has four segments on its upper surface. There is a dense fine pubescence all over the ant, with erect setae on clypeus and gastral apex only. Stinger and acidopore are absent.

Distribution

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The native range of T. melanocephalum is generally thought to be the Old World tropics (Deyrup et al., 2000). However, it has been spread by humans so widely that it is unclear if its native range is Africa or Asia (Wilson and Taylor, 1967). Molecular phylogenies need to be constructed to aid in the estimation of its native range. It is a prominent tramp species that has become widely distributed in the tropical and subtropical zones of the world, up to about 28°N and 23°S, and is often in close association with human settlement. It is also recorded in a number of temperate locations where it is present (either temporarily or permanently) in heated buildings (e.g., Germany (Steinbrink, 1987), Canada (Francoeur, 1977), and Finland (Sorvari, 2002)). It would be unlikely to survive outside these buildings in these countries.

Distribution Table

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The distribution in this summary table is based on all the information available. When several references are cited, they may give conflicting information on the status. Further details may be available for individual references in the Distribution Table Details section which can be selected by going to Generate Report.

Continent/Country/RegionDistributionLast ReportedOriginFirst ReportedInvasiveReferenceNotes

Asia

BangladeshPresentWetterer, 2009
CambodiaPresentWetterer, 2009
ChinaPresentIntroduced1921Wetterer, 2009
-GuizhouPresentZheng et al., 2007
Christmas Island (Indian Ocean)PresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
Cocos IslandsPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
IndiaPresentWetterer, 2009; Lokeshwari et al., 2015
-Indian PunjabPresentBharti and Singh, 2003
IndonesiaPresentWetterer, 2009
IraqPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
JapanPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
Korea, DPRPresentIntroducedISSG, 2012
Korea, Republic ofPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
KuwaitPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
MalaysiaPresentPresent based on regional distribution.
-Peninsular MalaysiaWidespread Invasive Loke and Lee, 2004On Penang Island in university dormitories
MyanmarPresentWetterer, 2009
OmanPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
PakistanPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
PhilippinesWidespread Invasive Way et al., 1998Present in rice fields
Russian Federation
-Russia (Asia)PresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
Saudi ArabiaPresentIntroducedCollingwood and Agosti, 1996
SingaporeWidespread Invasive Lee and Kooi, 2004Household and urban pest
Sri LankaPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
TaiwanPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
ThailandPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
United Arab EmiratesPresentIntroduced Invasive Collingwood et al., 1997Common in houses in several towns
VietnamPresentWetterer, 2009
YemenPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009

Africa

CameroonWidespread Invasive Dejean et al., 1994Present in secondary rain forest
Cape VerdePresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
ComorosPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
Equatorial GuineaPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
GabonPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
GambiaPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
GhanaPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
GuineaPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
KenyaPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
MadagascarPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
MauritiusPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
NigeriaPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
RéunionPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
Saint HelenaPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
SeychellesPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
Sierra LeonePresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
SomaliaPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
TanzaniaPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009

North America

CanadaPresentPresent based on regional distribution.
-ManitobaPresent, few occurrencesIntroduced Not invasive Ayre, 1977Only indoors
-OntarioPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
-QuebecLocalisedIntroduced Not invasive Francoeur, 1977Records are only from within heated buildings
MexicoPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
USAPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
-FloridaWidespreadIntroduced Invasive Clouse, 1999In agriculture
-HawaiiWidespreadIntroduced Invasive Clagg, 1957
-KansasPresentIntroducedDubois and Danoffburg, 1994Cited as unlikely to survive Kansas winters
-TexasPresentIntroducedCook et al., 1994

Central America and Caribbean

AnguillaPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
Antigua and BarbudaPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
ArubaPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
BahamasWidespreadIntroduced Invasive Deyrup, 1994
BarbadosPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
BelizePresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
Cayman IslandsPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
Costa RicaUnconfirmed recordShepard and Gibson, 1972; Wetterer, 2009
CubaPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
DominicaPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
Dominican RepublicPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
GuadeloupePresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
HaitiPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
HondurasPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
JamaicaPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
MartiniquePresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
NicaraguaPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
PanamaPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
Puerto RicoPresentIntroducedSmith, 1965Associated with rotten coconuts and feeding on insects
Saint Kitts and NevisPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
Saint LuciaPresentIntroduced Invasive Wetterer, 2009; ISSG, 2012
Saint Vincent and the GrenadinesPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
Trinidad and TobagoPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
United States Virgin IslandsPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009

South America

BrazilPresentPresent based on regional distribution.
-BahiaWidespreadIntroduced Invasive Delabie et al., 1995Pests within houses
-Minas GeraisWidespreadIntroduced Invasive Rodovalho et al., 2007A bacterial vector within hospitals
-Rio Grande do NortePresentIntroduced Invasive Morini et al., 2007
-Sao PauloWidespreadIntroduced Invasive Fowler et al., 1990Associated with scale insects on banana crops
ColombiaPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
EcuadorPresentPresent based on regional distribution.
-Galapagos IslandsPresentIntroduced Invasive Aesch and Cherix, 2005
GuyanaPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
ParaguayPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
PeruPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
SurinamePresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
VenezuelaPresentIntroducedGomez-Nunez, 1971Observed preying on a disease spreading bug

Europe

AustriaPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
BelgiumPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
Czech RepublicPresentKlimes and Okrouhlík, 2015Ceské Bude?jovice
DenmarkPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
FinlandPresentIntroduced Not invasive Sorvari, 2002Only observed in heated buildings
FrancePresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
GermanyPresentIntroduced Not invasive Steinbrink, 1987Present only in heated buildings
ItalyPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
NetherlandsPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
NorwayPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
RomaniaPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
Russian FederationPresentPresent based on regional distribution.
-Russia (Europe)PresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
SpainPresentIntroducedCollingwood, 1976
SwedenPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
SwitzerlandPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
UKPresentIntroducedVipin Shah et al., 1999In buildings

Oceania

American SamoaWidespreadIntroducedVargo, 2000Present in forest litter but dominated by other ants
AustraliaPresentPresent based on regional distribution.
-Australian Northern TerritoryPresentIntroducedAndersen and Reichel, 1994Holmes Jungle, Tropic forest
-New South WalesPresentIntroducedShattuck and Barnett, 2001
-QueenslandPresentIntroduced Invasive Shattuck and Barnett, 2001
-Western AustraliaPresentIntroducedBurbidge et al., 1992
Cook IslandsPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
FijiWidespreadIntroduced Invasive Ward and Wetterer, 2006Throughout islands
French PolynesiaWidespreadIntroduced Invasive Wilson and Taylor, 1967
KiribatiPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
Marshall IslandsPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
Micronesia, Federated states ofPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
New CaledoniaWidespreadIntroduced Invasive Wilson and Taylor, 1967
New ZealandPresentHarris et al., 2005; Peacock, 2012
Northern Mariana IslandsPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
PalauPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
Papua New GuineaPresentWetterer, 2009
Pitcairn IslandPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
SamoaWidespreadIntroduced Invasive Wilson and Taylor, 1967In native forest, houses and banana plantations
Solomon IslandsWidespreadIntroducedBROWN, 1959In coconut plantations
TokelauWidespreadIntroduced Invasive Lester and Tavite, 2004Primarily in and around houses
TongaWidespreadIntroduced Invasive Wilson and Taylor, 1967
US Minor Outlying IslandsPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
VanuatuPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009
Wallis and Futuna IslandsPresentIntroducedWetterer, 2009

History of Introduction and Spread

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T. melanocephalum is a common tramp species frequently intercepted and spread through trade for well over a century. It spread to much of its introduced range well before people starting recording its introductions or worrying about ecological impacts. For example, Mayr (1876) records this ant in Tonga which is well outside of its assumed African or Oriental origin.

Introductions

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Introduced toIntroduced fromYearReasonIntroduced byEstablished in wild throughReferencesNotes
Natural reproductionContinuous restocking
Florida 1930 Yes Deyrup et al. (2000) Unintentional
Texas Florida 1994 Yes Cook et al. (1994) Unintentional. Probably arrived on a shipment of plants from Florida.

Risk of Introduction

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All known introductions of this ant have been unintentional. Because of the small size of T. melanocephalum and its ability to nest in a variety of materials (e.g., potted plants, cut flowers, and luggage), it can easily be transported from one location to another (Appel et al., 2004). Colonies have been found in a wide variety of situations, including cupboards, instrument case lining, and piles of discarded clothing (Harada, 1990), meaning that the ant is likely to be associated with a wide variety of freight types. Detailed introduction history information is available from areas such as New Zealand (Harris et al., 2005; Lester, 2005). T. melanocephalum was intercepted at the New Zealand border 51 times between 1997 and the end of 2002, and a further 36 interceptions at the border between January 2003 and March 2004. Interceptions range from fresh produce to electronic equipment. The most prevalent pathways for this ant appear to be fresh produce (53%) and personal effects (17%), with the Pacific (75%), particularly Fiji and Tonga, being the predominant origin of interceptions into New Zealand. Interceptions from air freight (> 39%) and associated with air passengers (> 29%) are particularly common for this ant (Harris et al., 2005).

Habitat

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T. melanocephalum appears extremely flexible in the habitats it occupies, although it often appears to need some form of disturbance to survive in the presence of behaviourally dominant species. It commonly nests in temporary or unstable habitats such as plant stems or clumps of dry grass (Passera, 1994). It has been sampled nesting at ground level and in trees. In the cooler temperate regions it is only associated with greenhouses and heated buildings (Smith, 1965; Francoeur, 1977).

T. melanocephalum appears to be a disturbance specialist and in many locations is absent from undisturbed natural habitat (e.g. Fowler et al., 1994; Deyrup et al., 2000). Where it does occur in natural or semi-natural disturbed vegetation or remnants, it appears to be a minor component of the community and is never behaviourally or numerically dominant (e.g. Andersen and Reichel, 1994; Dejean et al., 1994; Way et al., 1998; Vargo, 2000; Lester and Tavite, 2004).

Habitat List

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CategoryHabitatPresenceStatus
Littoral
Coastal areas Principal habitat Natural
Other
Stored products Principal habitat Harmful (pest or invasive)
Terrestrial-managed
Buildings Principal habitat Harmful (pest or invasive)
Cultivated / agricultural land Principal habitat Harmful (pest or invasive)
Disturbed areas Principal habitat Harmful (pest or invasive)
Industrial / intensive livestock production systems Secondary/tolerated habitat Harmful (pest or invasive)
Managed forests, plantations and orchards Principal habitat Harmful (pest or invasive)
Protected agriculture (e.g. glasshouse production) Principal habitat Harmful (pest or invasive)
Urban / peri-urban areas Principal habitat Harmful (pest or invasive)
Terrestrial-natural/semi-natural
Natural forests Secondary/tolerated habitat Natural
Riverbanks Secondary/tolerated habitat Natural
Rocky areas / lava flows Secondary/tolerated habitat Natural
Scrub / shrublands Principal habitat Natural

Hosts/Species Affected

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It is important to note that no reports were found of T. melanocephalum being considered a significant pest of agriculture or horticulture. In crops it is considered a secondary pest: rather than being a pest itself, it can tend or farm mealybug, scale or aphid populations, protecting these pests from their natural enemies (Fowler et al., 1990; Appel et al., 2004). This protection can result in large herbivore populations. Unlike other invasive ants, however, the results of such tending behaviour in terms of economic damage have not been quantified. T. melanocephalum is also known to consume sugary foods in storage and nectar from plants.

Host Plants and Other Plants Affected

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Plant nameFamilyContext
Cocos nucifera (coconut)ArecaceaeOther
Musa (banana)MusaceaeOther
Oryza (rice (generic level))PoaceaeOther
SaccharumPoaceaeOther

Growth Stages

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Symptoms

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In crops T. melanocephalum is considered a secondary pest: rather than being a pest itself, it can tend or farm mealybug, scale or aphid populations, protecting these pests from their natural enemies (Fowler et al., 1990; Appel et al., 2004). This protection can result in large herbivore populations. The specific effects and symptoms on each crop are dependent on the specific mealybug, scale or aphid species being tended.

List of Symptoms/Signs

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SignLife StagesType
Fruit / abnormal shape
Fruit / discoloration
Fruit / external feeding
Fruit / honeydew or sooty mould
Fruit / lesions: black or brown
Fruit / premature drop
Growing point / discoloration
Growing point / distortion
Growing point / external feeding
Growing point / honeydew or sooty mould
Growing point / wilt
Leaves / abnormal colours
Leaves / abnormal leaf fall
Leaves / external feeding
Leaves / fungal growth
Leaves / honeydew or sooty mould
Leaves / leaves rolled or folded
Leaves / necrotic areas
Leaves / wilting
Leaves / yellowed or dead
Roots / external feeding
Stems / discoloration of bark
Stems / external feeding
Stems / honeydew or sooty mould
Whole plant / discoloration
Whole plant / early senescence
Whole plant / plant dead; dieback
Whole plant / wilt

Biology and Ecology

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Reproductive Biology

T. melanocephalum has polygyne (multiple queened) and unicolonial (separate but cooperatively interacting nests) colonies that can build up large numbers (Smith, 1965). Nests are found in the soil, rotten wood, decaying parts of trees or under bark, in plant cavities, houses, and in greenhouses (Smith, 1965). In tropical environments the ants will primarily nest outdoors, in small protected areas, for example, in and under potted plants, in dead tree limbs, under stones, in palm fronds, and in organic debris (Appel et al., 2004). Individual nests may contain 100-1000 individuals (Harada, 1990) and have numerous reproductive females. New colonies are probably formed by the migration of one or more reproductive females accompanied by a number of workers. Nuptial flights have not been reported for this T. melanocephalum. Almost no infighting between members of different colonies or nests has been observed, at least when they originate from the same area (Bustos and Cherix, 1998). Colonies are almost always in disturbed areas and in and around buildings in Florida (Deyrup et al., 2000). They often occupy temporary habitats (plant stems, clumps of dried grass, debris) and readily migrate if disturbed or if conditions become unfavourable (Passera, 1994).

Massuretti de Jesus and Correa Bueno (2007) have recently examined the phenology of T. melanocephalum in some detail. T. melanocephalum have four larval instars from egg-hatching to adult. The development of workers from egg to adult lasted 16-52 days with the embryonic development longer than larval, prepupal or pupal stages. The highest egg production was 5.3 eggs/day/queen, which is relatively slow compared to other ant species. However, due to the number of queens in a colony, the colonies may grow substantially faster than other tramp ant species.

Nutrition

The ants have an omnivorous diet typical of many tramp and pest ant species. In Puerto Rico, Pimentel (1955) observed worker ants destroying eggs and first-stage larvae of the housefly Musca domestica. Other arthropods that they have been observed to consume are diamondback moth larvae in India (Chelliah and Srinivasan, 1986), a disease-spreading bug in Venezuela (Gomez-Nunez, 1971), two-spotted spider mites (Tetranychus urticae) and aphids in glasshouses in Florida (Osborne et al., 1995), western flower thrips and Ecinothrips americanus (Osborne et al., 1995), and flea eggs and larvae (Tamsitt and Fox, 1966). T. melanocephalum has been frequently observed to tend honeydew producing homopterans (Appel et al., 2004), including root scales (Smith, 1955) and fruit scales on bananas (Fowler et al., 1990). In Cuba, they are known to disperse a grass root mealybug on the roots of sugarcane (Smith, 1965). Although the ants feed upon many different household foods, they seem to show a preference for sweets, having been observed feeding on sugar, cakes, and syrup. They are thus considered an important house pest (Smith, 1955; Klotz et al., 1995).

Associations

As reported above, there are a variety of aphids, scale and mealybug insects tended by and associated with T. melanocephalum. Shepard and Gibson (1972) reported an association between T. melanocephalum and a salticid spider (Continusa sp.) that resembles the ant. The spider builds silken retreats at the periphery of nests, seems to emigrate with the host, and is probably a symbiont (Shepard and Gibson, 1972). The spiders appear to provide the ants with protection from predators and parasites, while the ant nest is used as a foundation for web construction. An additional association has recently been reported between the state-endangered Miami blue butterfly, Cyclargus thomasi bethunebakeri (Lepidoptera) and T. melanocephalum, where the ant is one of several species observed tending the butterfly larvae (Saarinen and Daniels, 2006).

Environmental Requirements

Very limited information is available relating to environmental requirements and temperature tolerances of T. melanocephalum. Appel et al. (2004) investigated laboratory tolerances of workers maintained at a range of humidites and temperature ranging from 15-45°C. Low mortality of T. melanocephalum was observed at 15°C irrespective of the humidity, but the ant was sensitive to desiccation at temperatures of 25°C and above. In the United States they are found outside of building structures only in south Florida (below about latitude 29°12’N), with populations recorded in northern states only in glasshouses and other human structures (Thompson, 1990; Deyrup et al., 2000). In Hawaii, T. melanocephalum is restricted to the dry lowlands < 900 m) (Reimer, 1994). Climate modelling work has indicated that T. melanocephalum could only become established in temperate countries such as New Zealand within heated buildings, as recorded in other temperate climates (e.g. Dubois and Danoffburg, 1994).

Climate

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ClimateStatusDescriptionRemark
Af - Tropical rainforest climate Preferred > 60mm precipitation per month
Am - Tropical monsoon climate Preferred Tropical monsoon climate ( < 60mm precipitation driest month but > (100 - [total annual precipitation(mm}/25]))
As - Tropical savanna climate with dry summer Preferred < 60mm precipitation driest month (in summer) and < (100 - [total annual precipitation{mm}/25])
Aw - Tropical wet and dry savanna climate Preferred < 60mm precipitation driest month (in winter) and < (100 - [total annual precipitation{mm}/25])
Cf - Warm temperate climate, wet all year Preferred Warm average temp. > 10°C, Cold average temp. > 0°C, wet all year
Cs - Warm temperate climate with dry summer Tolerated Warm average temp. > 10°C, Cold average temp. > 0°C, dry summers
Cw - Warm temperate climate with dry winter Tolerated Warm temperate climate with dry winter (Warm average temp. > 10°C, Cold average temp. > 0°C, dry winters)

Air Temperature

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Parameter Lower limit Upper limit
Absolute minimum temperature (ºC) 13
Mean annual temperature (ºC) 25.0 29.2
Mean maximum temperature of hottest month (ºC) 30.5 33.2
Mean minimum temperature of coldest month (ºC) 18.4 25.8

Rainfall

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ParameterLower limitUpper limitDescription
Dry season duration012number of consecutive months with <40 mm rainfall
Mean annual rainfall174780mm; lower/upper limits

Pathway Causes

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CauseNotesLong DistanceLocalReferences
Crop productionMost frequently observed entering New Zealand on fresh produce, such as coconuts Yes Yes Harris et al., 2005
Cut flower tradeMay have been transported to Texas on cut flowers Yes Yes Cook et al., 1994
DisturbanceColonies will relocate if disturbed, and they are associated with disturbed environments Yes Yes Deyrup et al., 2000; Passera, 1994
FoodMost frequently observed entering New Zealand on fresh produce such as coconuts Yes Yes Harris et al., 2005
ForestryObserved in forest environments though in low numbers Yes Yes Lester and Tavite, 2004
Harvesting fur, wool or hairObserved associated with wool exports in New Zealand Yes Yes Harris et al., 2005
HitchhikerIn all the reported interceptions, it is associated as a hitchhiker with equipment or a crop Yes Yes Harris et al., 2005
HorticultureDue to the association of T. melanocephalum with pests of horticulture, horticulture must be conside Yes Yes Fowler et al., 1990
Nursery tradeDue to its tendency to nest in potted plants, these must be considered a risk Yes Yes Appel et al., 2004
Self-propelledThese ants will migrate by walking into new areas locally, especially if disturbed Yes Passera, 1994
Timber tradeObserved associated with cut timber imports entering New Zealand Yes Yes Harris et al., 2005

Pathway Vectors

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VectorNotesLong DistanceLocalReferences
AircraftObserved with produce on aircraft Yes Yes Harris et al., 2005
Bulk freight or cargoObserved associated with metal containers and exports into New Zealand Yes Yes Harris et al., 2005
Clothing, footwear and possessionsObserved associated in the personal luggage of people entering New Zealand Yes Yes
Containers and packaging - non-woodObserved associated with metal containers and exports into New Zealand Yes Yes Harris et al., 2005
Hides, trophies and feathersObserved associated with wool exports in New Zealand Yes Yes Harris et al., 2005
LuggageObserved associated in the personal luggage of people entering New Zealand Yes Yes Harris et al., 2005
Plants or parts of plantsT. melanocephalum may have been transported to Texas on cut flowers Yes Yes Cook et al., 1994

Plant Trade

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Plant parts liable to carry the pest in trade/transportPest stagesBorne internallyBorne externallyVisibility of pest or symptoms
Bark adults; eggs; larvae; pupae Yes Pest or symptoms usually visible to the naked eye
Flowers/Inflorescences/Cones/Calyx adults Yes Pest or symptoms usually visible to the naked eye
Fruits (inc. pods) adults Yes Pest or symptoms usually visible to the naked eye
Growing medium accompanying plants adults; eggs; larvae; pupae Yes Pest or symptoms usually visible to the naked eye
Leaves adults Yes Pest or symptoms usually visible to the naked eye
Roots adults Yes Pest or symptoms usually visible to the naked eye
Seedlings/Micropropagated plants adults Yes Pest or symptoms usually visible to the naked eye
Stems (above ground)/Shoots/Trunks/Branches adults Yes Pest or symptoms usually visible to the naked eye
True seeds (inc. grain) adults; eggs; larvae; pupae Yes Yes Pest or symptoms usually visible to the naked eye
Wood adults; eggs; larvae; pupae Yes Yes Pest or symptoms usually visible to the naked eye

Impact Summary

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CategoryImpact
Cultural/amenity Negative
Economic/livelihood Positive and negative
Environment (generally) Positive and negative
Human health Positive and negative

Economic Impact

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T. melanocephalum’s economic influence is primarily through its tending honeydew-producing homopterans (Appel et al., 2004). These homopteran associations have included root scales (Smith, 1936; cited in Fowler et al., 1990) and fruit scales on bananas (Fowler et al., 1990), and a grass root mealybug on the roots of sugarcane (Smith, 1965). In tending these insects T. melanocephalum protects them from natural enemies and receives a “reward” of honeydew. Large pest populations may develop. However, no work has been undertaken to quantify its economic impact and no reports have been published indicating it to be a significant pest of horticulture.

Alternatively, T. melanocephalum has a role as a predator of other pest and disease-spreading species. These ants have been observed attacking diamondback moth larvae in India (Chelliah and Srinivasan, 1986), preying on a disease-spreading bug in Venezuela (Gomez-Nunez, 1971), destroying eggs and larvae of houseflies in Puerto Rico (Pimental, 1955), and consuming two-spotted spider mites (Tetranychus urticae), aphids, western flower thrips and Ecinothrips americanus in glasshouses in Florida (Osborne et al., 1995). Again, however, no work has been undertaken to quantify the positive economic benefits of this predation of plant pests.

Environmental Impact

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Previous reviews of pest ants in North America include T. melanocephalum as a pest only in relation to urban areas (Smith, 1965; Thompson, 1990; Deyrup et al., 2000). T. melanocephalum appears be confined to disturbed habitat and in many locations is absent from undisturbed natural habitat such as in Florida (Deyrup et al., 2000) or Brazil (Fowler et al., 1994). Where it does occur in natural or semi-natural disturbed vegetation or remnants it appears to be a minor component of the community and is never numerically or behaviourally dominant. For example, in Tokelau it is present in low densities in forests but is dominated by other ants (Lester and Tavite, 2004).

In regard to its influence on other ant species, T. melanocephalum has poor interspecific competitive abilities and is unlikely to displace other ant species in natural environments (Aesch and Cherix, 2005). In São Paulo, Brazil, banana plantations with T. melanocephalum had fewer other ant species than those without T. melanocephalum (Fowler et al., 1994). However, it was likely that different management practices allowed T. melanocephalum to become established in some orchards rather than T. melanocephalum extirpating other ants. T. melanocephalum is a rapid coloniser and may benefit from control of other invasive ant species (Lee, 2002).

At least one positive impact of T. melanocephalum has been observed for biodiversity. Saarinen and Daniels (2006) found that this ant is one of several species to have been associated with the state-endangered Miami blue butterfly, Cyclargus thomasi bethunebakeri (Lepidoptera). This butterfly requires ants to tend the larvae. The presence of T. melanocephalum may actually benefit Cyclargus in this situation.

Social Impact

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The social impact of T. melanocephalum may be through its association with food supplies, or through health effects.

T. melanocephalum has been observed as a significant urban pest capable of infesting residential kitchens and commercial food outlets in large numbers (Lee, 2002). It can enter buildings through screens and small cracks and be a general annoyance (Deyrup et al., 2000). In a study of the ant community infesting houses of southern Bahia, Brazil, T. melanocephalum was one of the two most common ant species infesting houses (Delabie et al., 1995). It was also one of the three common species in south eastern Brazil (Fowler and Bueno, 1995). In Honolulu, Hawaii, T. melanocephalum was reported as a common household pest in the 1940s, but was seldom collected during the 1950s (Clagg, 1957). No reports were found of it damaging wiring or any other structures within buildings. In Florida, T. melanocephalum is considered one of the most important house-infesting pests; complaints were primarily due to it being a general nuisance (80%) or infesting food (15%) (Klotz et al., 1995).

The health impacts of T. melanocephalum vary tremendously. Some people suffer a slight irritation of the skin following contact with T. melanocephalum (Collingwood et al., 1997). T. melanocephalum may also have a role in disease transmission. It is abundant in hospitals in South America, and capable of transporting pathogenic microbes including seven types of bacteria, such as Enterobacter cloacae and Staphylococcus sp. (Olaya and Chacon, 2001; cited in Ulloa-Chacon and Jaramillo, 2003; Fowler et al., 1993). However, just as in horticulture, T. melanocephalum may have positive impacts for health. It was found to be the primary predator of the eggs of Rhodnius prolixus, the vector of Chagas disease in coastal Venezuela (Gomez-Nunez, 1971). Chagas disease is caused by Trypanosoma cruzi and is a serious public health problem in Latin America (Gutierrez et al., 2003). This predation on R. prolixus populations by T. melanocephalum may account for the absence of R. prolixus-associated diseases in this area of Venezuela (Gomez-Nunez, 1971). T. melanocephalum may also feed on flea eggs and larvae (Tamsitt and Fox, 1966).

Risk and Impact Factors

Top of page Invasiveness
  • Proved invasive outside its native range
  • Is a habitat generalist
  • Tolerates, or benefits from, cultivation, browsing pressure, mutilation, fire etc
  • Pioneering in disturbed areas
  • Tolerant of shade
  • Capable of securing and ingesting a wide range of food
  • Highly mobile locally
  • Benefits from human association (i.e. it is a human commensal)
  • Long lived
  • Fast growing
  • Has high reproductive potential
  • Gregarious
Impact outcomes
  • Host damage
  • Increases vulnerability to invasions
  • Loss of medicinal resources
  • Negatively impacts agriculture
  • Negatively impacts cultural/traditional practices
  • Negatively impacts human health
  • Negatively impacts livelihoods
Impact mechanisms
  • Causes allergic responses
  • Pest and disease transmission
  • Herbivory/grazing/browsing
  • Induces hypersensitivity
  • Interaction with other invasive species
  • Predation
Likelihood of entry/control
  • Highly likely to be transported internationally accidentally
  • Difficult to identify/detect as a commodity contaminant
  • Difficult to identify/detect in the field

Uses List

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Environmental

  • Biological control

Diagnosis

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A technical description suitable for quarantine purposes is as follows. Antennae are 12-segmented. First antennal segment (scape) is long, surpassing the posterior border of the head. Eyes are large, with 9-10 ommatidia in the longest row. Mandibles each have 3 large teeth and about 7 small denticles, with the mandible surface containing the teeth and that near the clypeus rounding gradually into one another (basal angle absent). The clypeus is without longitudinal carinae; with the anterior margin slightly concave in the alitrunk in profile and almost smoothly convex, but with a slight metanotal depression. The propodeum is without spines; the upper surface is shorter than the rear surface. One rudimentary node (petiole) is present, which lacks a distinct forward face and is partially or completely concealed when viewed from above by forward projection of the first segment of the gaster. The gaster has four segments on its upper surface. There is a dense fine pubescence all over the ant, with erect setae on clypeus and gastral apex only. Stinger and acidopore are absent.

Detection and Inspection

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One of the best methods for detecting invasive ants including T. melanocephalum is via baits. They appear to especially like sugary food. Clark et al. (1982) found that T. melanocephalum was frequently the only ant present on sugar water baits, but also the species most often replaced, suggesting a rapid utilization foraging strategy. Foragers locate and recruit to food quickly (Clark et al., 1982; Lee, 2002). However, they are also often displaced when dominant ants discover food resources (Clark et al., 1982), so observations may need to be made of species dynamics at baits.

The Pacific Invasive Ant Key (PIAKey) manual Pacific Invasive Ants Taxonomy Workshop Manual can both be used in identifying invasive ants in the Pacific region.

Similarities to Other Species/Conditions

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T. melanocephalum in urban areas can be confused with another common household ant of similar size, Monomorium pharaonis (pharaoh ant). However, T. melanocephalum has a distinctively lighter abdomen than thorax and head, while the pharaoh ant has a darker abdomen than thorax and head. Also, unlike T. melanocephalum, M. pharaonis has a post-petiole, although this would be difficult to see without magnification.

Prevention and Control

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Prevention

This is a classic “tramp” species, which has long been commonly associated with the movement of humans and human produce around the globe. This ant has been associated with humans and moving in goods for such a long time that it is likely to have already spread to much of its potential global range. Recent incursions into areas such as Finland (Sorvari, 2002) are likely to continue, but in such areas T. melanocephalum will be restricted to buildings and facilities such as heated greenhouses.

As with all invasive species, prevention is better and generally much easier than cure. Management of invasion pathways and goods likely to be infested is probably the best method for inhibiting invasion. Inspections of cargo and goods previously known to be infested is key to prevention. Such a monitoring system would enable an early detection system.

A key is being developed for invasive ants in the Pacific by Mr Eli Sarnat, from the University of California at Davis. When completed the key will be a useful first step in alerting quarantine authorities to the possible presence of T. melanocephalum, but a knowledgeable ant taxonomist should be consulted to confirm the presence of this ant species.

Control

This section makes extensive use of the review of baiting by Stanley (2004) and Harris et al. (2005).

There are no known or documented reports of eradication of populations of T. melanocephalum (Stanley, 2004). However, eradication has been undertaken for several other ant species (Hoffman and O’Connor, 2004; Lester and Keall, 2005). The techniques used for those species may be applicable and effective for T. melanocephalum, although some authors have had difficulties in determining attractive and effective baits for this ant (e.g. Hedges, 1996). Key to the majority of ant eradication work is the repeated high-density application of a highly attractive bait laced with a toxicant. The ants take the bait back to the nest and distribute it to all colony members including the queen. 

Research on the use of chemical toxicants for the management of infestations within urban areas has generally been where T. melanocephalum is one of several pest ants. Under such a scenario, other ant species may initially exclude T. melanocephalum from baits due to the poor competitive abilities of T. melanocephalum (Aesch and Cherix, 2005; Zheng et al., 2006). If able to access baits, T. melanocephalum will take baits but it can be difficult achieving effective control (Lee, 2002). In Malaysia, T. melanocephalum was attracted to both peanut butter and honey (Lee, 2002). Lee and Kooi (2004) recommend using sugar-based attractants in liquid or gel baits to target T. melanocephalum, although protein and oil-based foods may also be attractive. Lee (2002) reported limited success using paste and granular bait formulations to control T. melanocephalum and Hedges (1996) also reports difficulties trying to control this species with toxic baits. Boric acid in sucrose water was effective at eliminating T. melanocephalum in laboratory colonies within 8-12 weeks (Klotz and Williams, 1996; Klotz et al., 1996). In the same laboratory trial, Maxforce® (hydramethylnon in silkworm pupae protein matrix) had little or no effect on workers or colonies because very little was consumed (Klotz et al., 1996). In laboratory trials using hydrmethylnon at higher concentrations (Siege®) or Dimlin® (diflubenzuron) in sucrose liquid baits, only limited control of T. melanocephalum colonies was achieved after 9 weeks (Ulloa-Chacon and Jaramillo, 2003). In contrast, fipronil in sucrose liquid baits killed all laboratory colonies within a week (Ulloa-Chacon and Jaramillo, 2003).

Clearly baits with a high sugar concentration are preferred by T. melanocephalum and are likely to be the most effective carrier of toxicants. Sucrose water exploits the natural feeding habits of honeydew-collecting ants and also provides moisture (Klotz et al., 1996). However, liquid baits are not suitable for broadcast baiting, and must be available continuously, making control very labour-intensive (Klotz et al., 1998). Non-target issues are also greater when using sweet baits, but this is less of an issue within buildings.

There are no known biological control agents for T. melanocephalum. Biological control agents exist for ants, such as phorid flies (Vazquez et al., 2006), and may occur for T. melanocephalum. However the influence of such agents in regulating any ant population is yet to be demonstrated and none are known for T. melanocephalum. Ants are thought to be commonly regulated by interspecific interactions with other ant species (e.g. Dunn et al., 2007) and this certainly appears to be the case with T. melanocephalum, which appears to be excluded from habitats with high ant diversity (e.g. Fowler et al., 1994). Enhancing ant diversity within a particular habitat may inhibit or restrict the establishment of T. melanocephalum.

Gaps in Knowledge/Research Needs

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Clearly much less is known about the biology and control of T. melanocephalum than for many other ants or pest species. Such a gap in our knowledge may indicate that T. melanocephalum is of low relative importance as a pest species. However, key areas for future work regarding T. melanocephalum will be:


1. Establishing the direct or indirect (e.g. through tending scale insect populations) economic impact of this ant species, or perhaps the health impacts of T. melanocephalum through its presence in hospital environments;

2. Determining its native range and origin, which would be helpful for selecting biological control agents if health or economic effects are observed. Molecular techniques could be useful for such work;

3. Examining the native range for biological control agents, such as phorid flies or microbial biological control agents;

4. Further developing ‘best-practice’ sampling techniques to determine the presence of this species;

5. Identifying effective chemical control and bait delivery methods for T. melanocephalum.

References

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Links to Websites

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WebsiteURLComment
Ant web (for pictures and identification assistance)http://antweb.org
Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services site on T. melanocephalumhttp://entnemdept.ifas.ufl.edu/creatures/urban/ants/ghost_ant.htm
Harris et al. 2005. Pest risk assessment for Tapinoma melanocephalum in New Zealandwww.biosecurity.govt.nz/files/pests-diseases/animals/invasive-ants/ghost-ants-risk-assessment.pdf
Invasive Species Specialist Group (ISSG)http://www.issg.orgThe ISSG is part of the Species Survival Commission (SSC) of The World Conservation Union (IUCN). It is a global group of 146 scientific and policy experts on invasive species from 41 countries and provides advice on threats from invasives and control or eradication methods to IUCN members, conservation practitioners, and policy-makers.

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31/01/08 Original text by:

Philip Lester, Victoria University of Wellington, School of Biological Sciences, Room 413, New Kirk Building, Kelburn Pde, Kelburn Campus, P.O. Box 600, Wellington, New Zealand

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