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Ants

Ants are the garden’s socialites and are present in most British gardens.

What do ants do in my garden?

Ants, though problematic if they get into our houses, are great little creatures to have around. They form large colonies, often containing thousands of individuals and their extensive underground tunnels help to aerate the soil. They also control some pest species to an extent and help clear away any dead insects that may be lying around, which provide them with a nice meaty meal!

How do ants communicate?

Ant colonies seem to act like one enormous entity and show an amazing ability to cooperate with one another. They communicate with each other using chemical signals called pheromones. Their antennae are used to ‘smell’ each others’ pheromones, allowing them to send and understand all sorts of signals.

When ants forage, they may lay down pheromones to lead other ants to food. You may often see ants in long columns following one another because of these chemical communications. If you’ve ever trodden on an ant, you’ll know that all its friends run to help it within minutes. This is because the injured ant has emitted an ‘alarm’ pheromone to rally the troops, which helps the colony defend itself. Other pheromones may confuse ants from other colonies so that they don’t attack, or be released by the Queen in order to command her minions.

Black garden ants (Lasius niger) milking black...

Image by Isfugl via Flickr

What do ants eat?

Ants are omnivores who feed from many different garden sources. Sometimes they are scavengers, feeding on other dead insects, or even dead ants, sometimes they are predators, attacking and eating other insects, and sometimes they feed on fruit or plant matter. Many British species treat themselves to the sweet liquid secreted by aphids. They exhibit a bizarre behaviour where they ‘milk’ aphids by tapping them with their antennae, which stimulates the aphids to produce sweet honeydew which the ants gratefully lap up. Ants hold onto some food in an area called the ‘crop’ which they regurgitate for larvae back in the nest or share with other adult ants.

How do ants reproduce?

Worker ants are all female but they are infertile and unable to reproduce. At the end of the summer in Britain, queen ants will stop releasing a particular pheromone which causes the workers to raise new queens. Fertile male ants (drones) swarm in the air when conditions are warm and release a pheromone to attract breeding females who will follow the signal and mate. This provides an aerial buffet for birds and many queens perish but the ones who make it out alive will fly to a suitable nesting site bite off their wings and begin to lay eggs, establishing new colonies. The poor old male ants only live a few weeks and usually die once their job of mating is done.

Ant Facts
  • Ants are easily identified by their slim waists, bulbous abdomens and antennae which have a bend in the middle like an elbow
  • Britain’s climate is too cold for most ant species and only about 50 species (of more than 12000 classified worldwide) make their home here
  • They have complex societies where each ant is given a particular job, everyone communicates with each other and they work together as a team to solve problems. Not too different from human society in many ways!
  • Most colonies have one queen but some have several and some species of ant have no queens at all but breeding females
  • Experienced ants will teach younger ants how to forage for food and ants are the only group other than mammals who have been observed taking part in this kind of interactive teaching
  • Some species of ant (particularly army ants) in other parts of world, such as Africa, can be used to stitch wounds together. These species have powerful mandibles which are pressed into the wound as it’s held together. They pinch together and the body is broken off, leaving the mandibles in place.
  • Like some other insect species, some cultures see them as food. In Mexico, some honey ant workers are used as storage tanks for honey which Mexican Indians gobble up as a sweet treat

 

Written by Luke Raymond
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