Sean Menke and ants that smell like blue cheese

A student uses an aspirator to catch an ant at the Clybourn Metra station. [Sean Menke]
April 26, 2016

DNAinfo interviewed Sean Menke for a story about his student trips to study ants throughout Chicago.

Ants That Smell Like Blue Cheese Among 22 Kinds That Could Be In Your Home

By Justin Breen

DOWNTOWN — Sean Menke admits he’s probably killed thousands of ants, but it’s been for a purpose.

Menke, a biology professor at Lake Forest College, for the last five years has led a team of students who study ants throughout Chicago, including the green rooftop of the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.

Menke’s group has discovered 22 ant species that live within city limits — as they’ve conducted research at numerous Chicago Park District sites, Metra stations and in Chicago street cracks — and there may be as many as 35 species in Chicago.

“I’ve killed more ants in my lifetime than just about anyone else,” Menke said. “The guilt went away a long time ago. … But I know our world would not function if ants were not everywhere. They are really amazing creatures.”

Menke’s also learned what can keep ants out of people’s homes. He said the most important safeguard is having a clean dwelling.

“The best advice is to keep a cleaner house because ants are typically coming for food,” Menke said. “If you don’t have crumbs, you’ll typically have fewer ants.”

He noted that distributing mulch around a home’s perimeter also attracts ants.

“You’re giving ants that like that kind of loose soil a perfect environment to nest in,” Menke said.

Menke said it’s likely the ant population in the city hasn’t changed much in the last 10 years because the insects can live anywhere, even in cement-covered Downtown. He and his team take the ants from the ground with aspirators, which lets them suck ants into a vial at the end of a tube without it going in their mouths.

Some fun facts about ants, according to Menke:

• The most common household pest ant in Chicago is Tapinoma sessile (the odorous house ant). If you squish it between your fingers, it smells like blue cheese.

• Ants keep their nests deep underground at a consistent oxygen and carbon dioxide ratio, temperature and humidity all with passive air movement through clever manipulation of tunnels. Scientists are currently studying how they do this so that they can mimic it in modern high-rise architecture.

• Ants started farming and using antibiotics thousands of years before humans. Scientists are actually studying ants to try and develop new antibiotics for medical use.

• Almost every ant you see on the ground is a sterile worker and cannot reproduce. Ants that are able to reproduce have wings and can fly.

• The most common ant in Chicago is the Pavement ant (Tetramorium caespitum), and it was accidentally introduced from Europe.

• Ants mostly communicate by smell.