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Like bees and wasps, ants are social creatures. They live in large underground colonies that may consist of thousands of individuals.
There are about 15,000 species of ants but only about 50 species are found in the UK. Generally our climate is too cold for most species. More species are found in the warmest parts of the UK.
Ants can be found in a range of colours but are mainly shades of brown or black. The size of ants vary considerably but most found in the UK are about 5mm in length.
Ants have extremely thin waists - to me they look impossibly thin, In contrast the abdomen is very rounded. Their antennae or feelers are bent and used to communicate and to find their way around.
Ants live underground in large colonies that may house thousands of individuals. Their network of underground tunnels and chambers help to aerate the soil. The chambers are used for different purposes such as food storage and nurseries
Individuals in an ant colony are very selfless and will work for the general good of the colony. They often act as different parts of an individual being even if in so doing it results in individual death and are sometimes referred to as superorganisms.
Their ability to work together in co-operation means that ants need to have a good system of communication. The key to their communication is the production of pheromones which give out a variety of chemical signals. If you have ever watched ants collecting food to take back to the nest you will have noticed that they will follow one another in a long single-file stream. This is due to the first ant leaving a pheromone trail from the source of any good supply of food back to the nest which the other ants then follow. A different signal is given out if an individual ant is attacked. This signal draws other ants to defend the individual in trouble. The antennae are used to smell the pheromones. You may have noticed ants touching antennae with one another, in this way they can recognise individuals from their own colony, as each colony has a unique smell, and detect any intruders.
Each ant in a colony is bred for a specific task. As in other groups of social insects the colony revolves around the much larger queen. It is her task to lay as many eggs as the colony can support. The queen may live for up to 15 years which is quite a long life expectancy for an insect.
Most eggs laid will hatch into female worker ants. Workers are infertile and can live for up to five years. They are programmed for specific jobs such as foraging for food, tidying the nest, extending the nest and raising the young. The more experienced individuals will teach the young ants how to forage for food which is quite remarkable in an insect.
Ants are omnivorous creatures feeding on a wide range of foods. They will scavenge and in so doing clear up dead insects; they will predate on other insects and also eat fruit and plant material. Many species found in Britain also feed from the sticky sweet honeydew secreted by aphids. Ants will stimulate aphids into producing honeydew by stroking the aphid with their antennae. In return they will protect the aphids from predators such as ladybirds.
Some ants will ‘farm’ aphids by using chemicals produced in their feet to tranquillise the aphids and to keep them close to their nesting sites. They will also bite the wings from aphids to prevent them flying away and may also use chemicals to prevent the aphids from developing wings.
Some ants will even collect aphid eggs and store them in their nests over winter. In spring they will then take the young to nearby plants on which to feed. Other ants look after ‘herds’ of aphids kept underground in the nest. These aphids feed on underground roots.
Ants regurgitate food from their crop (like some birds do) to feed the young back at the nest or to share with adult worker ants confined to the nest.
At the end of summer male and new queen ants are produced. Both are winged. The males swarm into the air and produce a pheromone that attracts the young queens. The dangerous aerial act of mating follows. Many of these ants die or are eaten by birds but the fertile queens that survive will select a suitable nesting site where they will bite off their wings and start to build a new nest. Each queen will lay a few eggs in soft soil to create the new worker ants that will help her build a new colony.
After a few weeks the unfortunate males will die – their purpose having been fulfilled.
During the winter months ants will sleep in the nests only leaving to find food when the weather warms up.
Some species of ants will nip or bite and then squirt a poison called formic acid into the wound. Unless you are allergic to ant bites then most bites from UK species, although they can be painful, rarely cause a problem. Fortunately the black garden ants most commonly found in our gardens rarely bite humans unless they feel threatened.
The video below shows what happened when I inadvertently uncovered an ant’s nest whilst weeding. I must have uncovered a nursery chamber as lots of larvae were exposed. The ants immediate rushed about retrieve the larva and carrying them to safety.