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August 2021 - Ants



A few weeks ago whilst we were digging over one of the borders, we inadvertently disturbed an ants’ nest. They were black ants (Lasius niger) the most common of over three dozen species that occur in the UK
The ants that were urgently rushing around in order to move the pupae to safety, were working ants. They are all sterile, wingless females who are responsible for general housekeeping within the colony as well as feeding its occupants; the single queen and the growing larvae.

Click image to enlarge

It is the worker ants that are most often seen above ground, but on warm, humid evenings anytime between June and September, thousand of flying ants will emerge from their subterranean nests and take to the skies. These are known as nuptial flights and occur in many colonies simultaneously when local weather conditions are suitable. The swarm comprises male ants and unmated queens. Mating takes place on the wing and the queens can store enough sperm on these nuptial flights to enable them to lay thousand of fertilised eggs for the duration of their lifetimes. Any queens that aren’t predated during these flights can live for many years, the record being 29. But the male ants having served their purpose, only live for a day or two after mating.
Once mated, the queen seeks out a suitable place to create her nest and having first discarded her wings, begins to tunnel into the ground. She then seals the entrance to the tunnel, and at its base, creates a chamber in which she lays her eggs. In this new colony, the queen has to rely on fluid created from the breakdown of her own muscles, including the now redundant flight muscles, for all her nutrition. By the time the eggs have hatched and metamorphosed through
their pupal and larval stages to become worker ants, the queen will have lost up to 50% of her bodyweight.
The worker ants then set about expanding the nest and going off in search of food. They eat a number of things including nectar, fruit small insects and honeydew produced by aphids. When an ant locates a suitable food source it will leave a scent trail to the nest for others to follow. Amazingly, they have two stomachs of which the larger, or social stomach, is used to feed members of the col with a priority being to restore the condition of the queen
From now on the population of worker ants will continue to grow and the individuals will become larger and stronger having co-workers to feed them as they develop. After several years, with the colony well established, the queen will then lay unfertilised eggs which will develop into males, and some of fertilised eggs, in receipt of more protein, will become new queens. These individuals will then emerge on their nuptial flights to start the cycle once more
Ants generally divide opinion, with many people disliking them and resorting to chemical means to destroy their nests. But black ants are completely harmless and can be deterred from seeking out sugary treats in the house by using substances such as citrus fruits, coffee grounds, peppermint oil and many others
And ants play a really important role in the environment. They aerate and enrich the soil through their tunnelling activities and the release of nutrients from the organic matter they digest. They help to spread pollen and seeds, consume a number of garden pests and in their turn become part of the food chain, providing a tasty snack for birds, frogs and other animals. So let’s give them a break and choose to live alongside these industrious and remarkable little insects
Words by Denise Long
Picture by Bruce Larner




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