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Traversing an Urban Gradient in Search of Ants

Blakely Drake
Lake Forest College
Lake Forest, Illinois 60045

This past summer I had the wonderful opportunity to participate in the Richter Scholar Summer Research Program offered here at Lake Forest College. In order for students to participate they must fill out an application and be accepted into the program during their spring semester of freshman year. As a Biology major wanting to become a doctor, I was most interested in the science research opportunities, but Richter Scholar applicants have the opportunity to apply for research in many different fields. One of the labs I selected, and the lab I ultimately became a member of, was Dr. Sean Menke’s lab.


As a member of Dr. Menke’s lab, I was very quickly thrust into the world of ecology where I read plenty of articles to further my understanding of how ants are affected by urban environments. Over the course of the 10-week program, I was able to get involved in three different studies involving ants: ant communities along an urbanization gradient, ant diet preferences in varying urban settings, and the green rooftops project. The majority of my involvement was centered on ant communities along an urbanization gradient. We wanted to see how ant abundance (the number of ants) and ant species richness (the number of species) changed with levels of urbanization.


Specifically, we explored ant community composition at 10 different sites along a 52 km transect extending from central Chicago out to Lake Forest. Our study took place in forested areas, so I was required to wear pants, a long-sleeved shirt, long socks that I tucked my pants into, and a hat adorned with a bug net; to say I was sporting a look would be an understatement.


On top of the fashion statement, I learned to associate each of the sites with precautions I must take. The most important precaution was to use bug spray. There was one site near a cemetery where I swear the mosquitoes were ten times worse than anywhere else. When I say I had 50 bug bites even after spraying the bug spray, I am not exaggerating; the place was a nightmare to visit.


Another site I remember very fondly is the bog site. It wasn’t an actual bog, but we had received so much rain during those weeks that it seemed like it. My main mistake when visiting this place was wearing “too nice” of shoes. Because I hadn’t worn boots, my shoes were not able to hang onto my feet in the way that they probably desired. This mistake cost me greatly. One moment I was casually walking along behind my other lab members, the next I was practically face down in the mud with my shoe almost lost in the depths behind me. Luckily, I was able to recover the shoe and catch up to the group, but let me tell you, my shoe laces were much tighter after that little adventure.


The final site I must mention is the site with the chain. The chain hangs between two posts and blocks a driveway. It is clearly used to keep vehicles off the property, but apparently it doesn’t discriminate. As a part of getting into the forest, we were all required to cross this swinging chain of death, and I being the graceful being that I am, got my foot caught on it. When I say I went down, I went down, and everyone witnessed it. To make matters worse, the drive was covered in giant rocks, so my hands and knees received every scrape possible. It hurt really badly, but needing to reclaim my dignity, I hopped up and carried on like nothing happened. Despite this nonchalance, I know the other lab members were trying hard to hide their smiles.

Although these stories sound like horrible experiences, I really did enjoy my summer in the lab. I definitely got to laugh at myself as much as anyone else did. These memories on top of the chance to improve my research and presentation skills–and receive a stipend–really made my summer amazing. I would recommend this program to anyone even remotely interested in research. It really is a great way to find what your interests are.

Drake Fig 1

Drake Fig 3

Drake Fig 2


Eukaryon is published by students at Lake Forest College, who are solely responsible for its content. The views expressed in Eukaryon do not necessarily reflect those of the College.

Articles published within Eukaryon should not be cited in bibliographies. Material contained herein should be treated as personal communication and should be cited as such only with the consent of the author.