Xander Johnston, Our RSPB Young Nature Champion Award Winner, shares some of his incredible knowledge about wood ants!

Wood ants are amazing! Or that’s what I think and hopefully after reading this you will too...

Hi, I am Xander Johnston, AKA Ant Boy, the Cairngorms Nature Young Ambassador and the RSPB Young Nature Champion of 2018. Since discovering the amazing world of ants 3 years ago I have been hooked, and just love to sit watching them on a warm spring day as they swarm on the outside of their nest, absorbing the heat from the sun before returning to the depths to heat up the nest and the rest of the colony.


Xander Johnston AKA AntBoy

Living in the Cairngorms National Park in Aviemore, surrounded by the majestic Caledonian pine forest, I don’t need to go far to find myself a wood ants nest. Once you know what to look for, it’s almost impossible not to notice them when you are out and about in the forest.

What type of wood ants might you find?

The 2 most common types of wood ant you will find are the Scottish wood ant (Formica aquilonia) and the Northern wood ant which is also known as the Hairy wood ant (Formica lugrubis) due to the small hairs that run along its head and down to its eyes.

The third, and less common, is the Narrow-headed ant (Formica exsecta) which has a dimple on the top of its head making it easy to identify from the others. This is a rare species of ant in the UK which is only found in a few key locations in the Cairngorms National Park and in one site in Devon.


Identifying ants using a hand lens

Where do wood ants live?

Wood ants nests come in all different sizes, are usually dome shaped and are almost always south-east facing to ensure they catch the warmth of the sun as these insects depend upon the suns heat to survive. Scottish and Hairy Wood ants nests can be found along the edge of forests, often along pathways or in clearings within the forest where the sun is able to reach the nests. Narrow-headed wood ants are slightly different and their nests tend to be smaller and flatter than the larger Scottish and Northern wood ants nest and are found in open heather clearings and away from the forest edge.

Often other insects take refuge in wood ants nests including a species of worm and species of woodlice. The shining guest ant (a Rare Invertebrates in the Cairngorms species) likes to take residence in wood ants nests where it is left alone due to its shiny coating that is distasteful to the wood ants. These tiny ants are dwarfed by the larger wood ants and will find a small twig or branch deep inside the wood ants nest to hollow out and start their own colony, with as few as 10 to 20 shining guest ants per colony. Wood ants keep their nests very clean, and you can often see small pieces of pine resin in or around the nest, this resin has an antibacterial property which helps keep the nest disease free.


A hairy wood ants nest

What do wood ants eat?

Wood ants get their food from many different sources including vegetation, by eating other insects and grubs and from farming aphids on the surrounding trees.

In the same way that farmers milk cows, wood ants milk aphids for their honeydew. The ants use their antenna to encourage the aphids to release their sweet honeydew which is drunk by the ants and transported back to the nest where it is used to feed the colony and larvae. Wood ants are known to move the aphids about the tree like a farmer would move his cattle to ensure they produce the best harvest.


Xander interviewing Hayley Wiswell from CNP about ants

Ants are related to bees and wasps?

As most people know, ants are a type of insect, and within the insect world there are roughly 30 different groups or orders that insects fall into, these orders group together different insects with similar characteristics and abilities.

The interesting thing is that ants are actually part of the same order as bees and wasps. This may sound a little weird but ants are  more similar to bees and wasps than you may think. What if I was to tell you that  male and female ants actually have wings during the mating season, and although wood ants are stingless, they are able to spray formic acid as a defence technique. When you put this together and you can see how they are similar to both bees and wasps.


A narrow headed ants nest

Are all ants female? Well, almost.

Male wood ants, who have wings, can only be found during the short breading season where they are helping to create the next generation of ants. Out with this short period, all of the ants you will ever see are female. Female ants perform all of the jobs within the colony from the queen who lays the eggs, the workers who collect the food to the soldiers who protect the nest.  Queen ants may live up to 15 years whereas a worker ant only has around 60 days to live. During that time the queen may sleep for up to 9 hours a day, with the poor workers working 24/7 with only a short nap if they are lucky.


Wood ants swarming on their nest

These are just some of the reasons why I love wood ants so much. And it doesn’t stop there, with so many different species of ants all with their own ways of doing things and skills, I never get bored looking for and learning about them.

Hopefully you will agree that these insects are truly amazing and next time you see an ant walking along the ground, you won’t step on it, but instead follow it to see if it takes you to its nest so you can watch its sisters hard at work. If you happen to come across a nest with no activity please don’t poke or disturb it as the ants are sure to be deep inside keeping warm.

If you want to see some videos on Wood ants, or want to know more interesting and fascinating things about the world of insects, including species such as the critically endangered Pine hoverfly or the rare and beautiful Kentish Glory moth, check out my YouTube channel. And if you like what you see don’t forget to subscribe!

 

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