Get in touch: send your photos, videos, news & views by texting YOGAZ to 80360 or send an email»
Stage set for amazing aerial ant performance
Nature and travel writer and outdoor education teacher MIKE BAGSHAW enjoys a mellow moment
DURING my day job teaching children in the outdoors, I often introduce them to the delights of a ‘mellow moment’.
This involves lying absolutely still and quiet for a minimum of two minutes, while taking in the atmosphere of somewhere wild, like a wood or riverside. I would highly recommend it for grown-ups as well.
I normally have no trouble being mellow, but last weekend my reverie on a soft cushion of pine needles in Dalby Forest , was rudely interrupted by a series of sharp pains on the skin of my bare arms. A number of large, orange-coloured ants had taken exception to my presence within their territory and decided to bite me. It wasn’t the bite that stung, though, but the formic acid they sprayed into the wound afterwards – nice. This is the same chemical that nettles use in their sting, and it provides these wood ants with two things, 80 per cent of their bodyweight and their scientific name of Formica rufa.
Once I had gently brushed off all the remaining angry insects from my clothes, I decided to find their nest.
Wood ants live in enormous colonies of several hundred thousand individuals, and range more than 100 yards from their home base in search of food. Wandering towards where there seemed to be more ants on the ground and up tree trunks seems to be the best way of tracking the nest mound down, and once caught sight of, it is unmistakable.
The pyramid-shaped pile of pine needles can be four feet high and six feet in diameter, and on warm days like last Sunday, the surface seethes with the bodies of defending ants.
Don’t be tempted to disturb the nest mound as the ants will go apoplectic, and you may also damage what is a very technically engineered structure – waterproof, and with a clever ventilation system.
Later that same day, my walk took me across a fabulous wildflower meadow overlooking Ellerburn, and provided another encounter with ants. The flat limestone slab that I lifted in search of slow worms turned out to be the roof over a yellow meadow ant nest. These tiny, timid creatures are very different to their larger cousins. Unlike wood ants they spend most of their lives underground, farming herds of root aphids – drinking the honeydew they produce in the summer and eating the aphids themselves through the winter.
There is one part of their life cycle, however, that they do share with wood ants. Indeed all 50 species of British ants have what’s called a nuptial flight, and it’s likely to happen this month in Ryedale. On one particularly warm and humid day in the next few weeks, millions of flying ants will emerge simultaneously from their underground nests across the region. It is a republican revolution of sorts, as all the flying ants are either young queens or prince consorts (they die before they get to become kings) and they are forcibly ejected by the workers of the nest.
The purpose is reproduction, of course, with the freshly-mated queens founding new nests, but the synchronisation in timing between nests of the same species is actually a very clever double tactic. With ants from many different colonies in the air at once, getting an unknown mate is likely and hence inbreeding is avoided. Also, predators cannot cope with the sudden glut of food; flying ant day is bonanza time for birds, but they can only eat so many, so most queens will survive to found a new colony.
Keep an eye out later this month for a weather forecast of hot and humid and you may get to witness the amazing nuptial flight phenomenon from at least one of our local ant species.