Why intrepid scientists risk having ants in their pants in the Peak District

Northern hairy wood ant research at Longshaw: ant nest in close up
Northern hairy wood ant research at Longshaw: ant nest in close up

Real science can be uncomfortable, and ticklish. Carefully observing a nest of 500,000 northern hairy wood ants for three minutes, for example, may provide useful data, but it also gives ant gangs the chance to investigate the observer.

So visitors to Longshaw over the next month may encounter ant scientists either staring at nests or leaping up and down in the woods trying to dislodge curious insects from their clothing and clipboards.

Northern hairy wood ant research at Longshaw: Ted Talbot and son George patiently watching for shining guest ants

Northern hairy wood ant research at Longshaw: Ted Talbot and son George patiently watching for shining guest ants

“Citizen science like this spreads awareness and helps people understand what’s going on in their own area,” said King Edward VII student George Talbot. “I’ve really enjoyed taking part, but I think I’ve been bitten under my shirt, on my head, everywhere.”

Over the last five years, scientists from York University have been researching one of England’s largest colonies of northern hairy wood ants. There are over 900 ant nests around Longshaw, ranging in size from a tennis ball to metre-wide ant cities, with special chambers and tunnels and a transport network of trails between nests and feeding sites, where the ants milk honeydew from their herds of aphids in nearby trees.

The scientists have monitored wood ant movement by marking them with special paint, and by fitting ants with tiny transmitters to log their travels along a complex network of two-inch-wide trails worn through the grass by thousands of ant feet and formic acid.

Their findings have shown that the nests – each housing a closely-related family of ants – co-operate with nearby nests of the same family, sharing food, for example. “It’s a buffering strategy,” said researcher Dr Elva Robinson. “If there are many nests all exploring for food, a nest doing well can support a nest temporarily not doing well, and then there might come a time that the food goes back the other way.”

Owners the National Trust work closely with the York scientists, and ranger Rachel Bennett said the findings help inform the woodland and tree removal strategy.

Biologist Courtney Rockenbach from New Jersey has been studying the trails in particular, and has been impressed with local family interest. “I think ants are awesome, so it’s fun when folks are curious and want to know more,” she said. “Ants sometimes get a bad reputation, but I think any time we can appreciate the complexity of an organism, we gain a little more respect for it.”

The latest work is centred around another recently discovered resident of the ant cities: the tiny ‘shining guest ant’.

“Really it’s an unwanted guest in the nest, you could think of it like a house mouse,” said Dr Robinson. At a few millimetres long, guest ants are less than half the size of a hairy wood ant, but happily scurry around picking up discarded food in the nest, protected by tasting horrible to wood ants, who occasionally grab them and quickly drop them again.

Since few predators risk being bitten or sprayed with acid by poking an ant nest, the guest ant is very well-protected. At present, any benefit to the host wood ants from this arrangement is unclear, said Dr Robinson, but could not be ruled out.

From now until mid-October, the Longshaw rangers are inviting applications from local people to join the guest ant research team: ant monitors will be given the tools and training to record which nests have shining guests in residence.

“This really is a great piece of citizen science, and will contribute to a wider knowledge and understanding of our natural world,” said Rachel.

“We now know we’re in the middle of the sixth great extinction, which this time is human-induced and what to do about it is the main topic at the current IUCN World Conservation Congress in Hawaii,” said the trust’s countryside manager for the Peak District, Ted Talbot. “One way to mitigate this locally is to get a truer understanding of the landscapes we do know and love, because if we’re going to be custodians of the planet, we really do need to know what we’re looking after. The northern hairy wood ant is a very special animal in the Peak District, and Sheffield people do know about it because if you sit down in the wrong place and have a picnic, they climb up your leg.

“But we certainly don’t yet know everything about hairy wood ants and this guest who lives alongside them. So if you do want to contribute to groundbreaking research you don’t have to go the Amazon rainforest, you can do it here.”

Call 01433 631757 or visit longshaw@nationaltrust.org.uk for details.