Ants offer fascinating mix of science and natural history for all the family

Wood Ant study at Longshaw: Ranger Chris Milner with hairy wood ants
Wood Ant study at Longshaw: Ranger Chris Milner with hairy wood ants

In recent months, visitors to Longshaw have regularly found Phd student Samuel Ellis hidden in the woods, surrounded by test tubes.

“They often ask what I’m doing, so I say: ‘I’m sticking electronic tags on ants.’ Then they say: ‘Hmm’. But they’re always interested, after their initial confusion.”

So they should be. Samuel’s three-year research project on how the hairy wood ant population at Longshaw communicates and organises itself is an international first.

In other countries, wood ants often have clear demarcations between colonies, nests and queens, but in Longshaw colonies have several nests each with anything from three to 100 queens, in a system called ‘polydomy.’

“No-one knows why they do that and how they organise it, and that’s why I’m here,” said Samuel.

Since June, he has been sticking tiny electronic tags on batches of 1,000 wood ants, each ant up to a centimetre long and liable to spray formic acid on anyone disrupting their travels between nests carrying aphid milk, nest twigs, fellow ant workers, dismembered earthworms or body parts of fellow insects at Longshaw, near Fox House in the Peak District, .

“Being sprayed with acid all day does burn your fingers, until I learned to wear gloves,” Samuel noted. The first 1,000 tags are now hidden in the Longshaw undergrowth, as the initial ant volunteers removed their tags before the glue had fully set. Now tagged ants go into a test tube to let the glue harden (hence the ranks of test tubes on tagging days). But timing is critical as the ants gas themselves with acid if left confined for too long.

When all goes well, Samuel returns to the trail networks with his ant scanner (which works like a barcode reader) and notes what each ant is carrying. The results await many long hours of winter study at the University of York.

In the meantime, he lives above the Longshaw visitor centre, courtesy of the National Trust, which partly funded the research project.

“Samuel’s project means we can do our forestry work over five to ten years around the ants,” said National Trust ranger Chris Milner.

The plan is to clear conifers and other dense trees to open up areas of woodland and enclose some woods to keep out livestock (with gates to provide footpath access).

The hairy wood ant is actually the top predator in the Longshaw woodland, Samuel said, with only woodpeckers eating the ants themselves.

“The ants eat beetles and earthworms, and when you see them fighting earthworms it’s quite vicious to watch.”

The Longshaw hairy wood ant population is scattered over about 300 colonies in more than 1,000 nests, each measuring from about 10cm to a metre in diameter. At present it’s not clear how Longshaw’s 19m hairy wood ants affect the Longshaw trees and fellow animals, but one possibility from research is that a healthy wood ant population promotes the growth of small trees and inhibits larger trees.

“The wood ants probably help to provide a bit of a balance,” said Chris Milner. “They’ve been here for a long time, and they’re a sign that this is a good stable habitat.”

The ant project attracts families and children interested in science and natural history. Last Sunday’s family ant day brought in around 80 people to learn how ants regulate nest temperature using entrance holes, how they use pine sap as disinfectant, and how the queens are not really in charge, but just part of the colony structure.

Children are particularly keen on the acid spraying and worm dismembering aspects of an ant’s lifestyle, Chris Milner noted.

“Each individual ant is really stupid, but together they can do these complicated things, like living in lots of nests while somehow avoiding individual nests starving,” said Samuel.

He hopes his research will help reveal how simple rules for individual ants can enable colonies to survive and prosper.

Such ‘ant algorithms’ can also be used within human systems such as telephone and lorry distribution networks to improve efficiency and simplicity.

“I knew it would be complicated,” said Samuel. “I’ve worked with ants before.”

The next ant open day at Longshaw is September 1, with other family activities throughout the summer. See http: