Richard Elliott is 14 years old and has been interested in nature for as long as he can remember. Richard is enthusiastic about invertebrates; he enjoys exploring nature, looking for wildlife and has even attended identification courses.
The UK has many passionate young naturalists, but these days it can be easy for some young people to feel a disconnect with the natural world. That is why parks and green spaces are so important for young people to relax and socialise with family and friends, to play sports, and to connect with and observe wildlife.
It is fantastic to hear from enthusiastic voices like Richard’s to tell us about his experiences and invertebrate interests.
I have an interest in invertebrates and I will be writing specifically about red wood ants Formicarufa - a large ant species found in forests in England and Scotland.
I saw many red wood ant mounds recently in Blackwater in the New Forest. Red wood ants, also known as southern wood or horse ants don’t have hairs on their body or head whereas other wood ants do. The highest concentration of red wood ants in the UK is in the South of England where the New Forest is.
The red wood ant is Britain’s largest ant at about 1cm in length. Like most ants it feeds on other insects and honeydew from aphids that live in the trees. Hunting together, they can kill things that are a lot bigger than an individual ant. Once the prey has been killed, the ants cut it up and bring the pieces back to the nest where the young eat it. If an ant is in danger, it will send out pheromones to warn the rest of its colony.
A red wood ant nest is a mound of small twigs, dirt, lichen and pine needles. They can be about 2m in diameter. However, in 2019 a nest was found in Dundreggan in Scotland that measured 4.5m in diameter – possibly the UK’s largest wood ant nest! Nests can contain 250,000 individual ants with a queen found at the centre of the nest and guarded by the workers.
A wood ant nest is like nature’s very own castle because it has a chamber for the queen, tunnels and even a graveyard!
In a forest you are likely to find a red wood ant nest under a large tree such as a wellingtonia or a douglas fir. The New Forest has a lot of douglas fir trees that are coniferous. They are very unlikely to appear in your garden so don’t expect them because very few gardens are in a conifer forest.
If threatened, red wood ants can squirt acid out of its abdomen at its enemy. The acid can cause swollen eyes that will remain itchy for several minutes. The acid has a pungent scent that smells a bit like lemon juice. If you were to wander near a nest you would see a trail of ants coming to and from it. These are ants going to and from hunting trips.
A worker ant can live around 2 months. Male winged ants live about 2 weeks, but the queen can live for about 15-20 years. All of the workers in the colony are made by the queen. A red wood ant colony will survive for a number of decades, with a daughter taking over from an elderly queen to keep the colony going. Workers and queens can live through the winter months. Workers that are fed more are destined to be queens.
In a way, wood ants protect the forest because they kill plant-eating insects, helping to keep a balance and to stop them from damaging the forest.
In summary, there’s a lot to know about ants and I hope you have fun looking for them. Here is a fantastic website if you would like to know more about wood ants: https://www.woodants.org.uk/home What I would really like to see is Formicasanguinea. These are slave-maker ants and they raid the nests of other ant species, killing the adult ants and capturing the pupae to turn into slaves!
In The Royal Parks, we do not find red wood ants, but we do have other habitats that support different ant species. For example, the nationally scarce bicolored tree-ant Lasius brunneus has been recorded nesting in the hollow trunks of old hawthorn trees in Bushy Park and Richmond Park. Another species is the yellow meadow ant Lasius flavus, whose 1-2m diameter anthills can be found in areas of acid grassland in Richmond and Bushy Parks.
In 2018, volunteers helped Mission: Invertebrate to map more than 400,000 yellow meadow anthills in Richmond Park – estimated to be home to around 3 billion ants, as well as a whole host of other invertebrates, plants and other organisms! So, if you do come across these mounds, try not to walk on them – they are very important parts of the parks’ ecosystem.
You can find out more about yellow meadow ants in our previous blog.