For the uninitiated, there are two types of ants in the UK: the red ones that bite and black ants that invade our kitchens. Even more disturbing is when hundreds of local ant colonies swarm out, creating a regional “flying ant day.”
People can develop an intense fear of ants called myrmecophobia. Although this is more likely if they are allergic to ant bites and stings.
The ant scurrying across my kitchen floor this morning would be just a black ant and a nuisance to most people, but it’s my favorite kind. Small, with a short waist between chest and abdomen, I identified it as Lasius niger (the black garden ant). This is the most common ant species in Britain, just one of 51 living in the UK, plus 13 introduced species.
Worldwide there are about 16,000 ant species in colonies of up to 500,000 individuals. They can all bite a sting (although most are too small to hurt) and all produce formic acid for protection and attack. That all sounds a little worrisome if you’re not an insect person.
What use are ants?
Anyone who has ever been bitten by an ant may wonder what the use of those pesky critters is. But the truth is, we just can’t live without them.
Ants help break down organic matter. Without them, it would accumulate and reduce soil quality. Studies on weaver ants Oecophylla smaragdina show that they reduce pests and can improve crop yields. Some people eat weaver ants because they are high in protein and fatty acids.
Ants dig and build underground nests. As ecosystem engineers, they improve soil porosity to air and water, increasing soil pH and essential nutrients. The wildlife we love to see from our gardens or in nature reserves depend on ants. For example, they are eaten by green woodpeckers. Larvae of the endangered great blue butterfly also feed on red ant larvae.
All ants live in a very structured community. They share information and make joint decisions. Most ants are workers, produced from fertilized eggs. They have different roles according to age; taking care of larvae deep in the nest when they are young, then cleaning and transporting food, and finally searching and collecting food when they are older (and more redundant). Some tropical ant species have soldiers for defense and attack, which, like workers, are all female. British carpenter ants (Formica rufa) have no soldiers, so workers take the role. Formica sanguinea plunder colonies of Formica fusca and take larvae that grow up to become their slaves.
Some species, such as Lasius niger, settle in homes and I followed my ant to a colony that was eroding the pantry wall (now repaired). Not harmful to humans per se, each L. niger has a specific job and mine was a scout. It would return a food sample to the colony. Other ants would follow the scout ant to the food source. L. niger scouts lay down chemical trails to feed her sisters.
When the colony grows too large, the queen produces winged ants. They are fertile princesses that develop from fertilized eggs, and males from unfertilized eggs. Swarms are caused by warm, humid conditions after rain. Flying ants use their wings only once.
Swarming encourages genetic mixing while males from other nests chase each princess. The males then die of exhaustion and damage inflicted during mating. New queens shed their wings and start a nest of workers. The old queen remains and can live for 25 years. All her young come from one nuptial flight, although she can mate with several males.
Not all red ants sting
Another common species is Myrmica rubra, a red ant sometimes referred to as the European fire ant. It is common in the UK and Europe and has invaded North America and Asia. M. rubra is aggressive and, when provoked, often bites and stings. M. rubra forms mounds or lives under rocks in grassland or sand dunes. While foraging for food, it can disrupt a picnic, but rarely ventures indoors. Many people consider red ants to be bad ants.
One study examined the differences in behavior of the two species by routing them one by one to a container of springtails (tiny wingless insects eaten by ants).
Although M. rubra spent an average of one-third less time in the room than L. niger, it made three times as many aggressive contacts with the springtails and killed nearly seven times as many. So, M. rubra is more predatory, but living in exposed places is at greater risk of being attacked. You can hardly blame him for defending himself. L. niger is too small to inflict a painful bite and does not sting.
Most ants don’t harm us unless we threaten them. Although they can damage crops. For example, red ants can destroy your allotment (they keep aphids as pets to feed on their sugary secretions).
So they can invade your house, steal your food and damage your vegetable garden. But the majority of British ants lead impeccable lives underground as architects of soil health in complex societies.
Six amazing facts you need to know about ants
Provided by The Conversation
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