COLUMN: The fascinating facts behind ants

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Hello again! Last month in my column I looked at beetles. I’m staying with the tiny beasties this month, and looking at ants.

Ah yes, ants. We all know what they look like, and yet we take them so much for granted. Except if they are giving us itchy bottoms or getting into the food on a sunny picnic. But how much do you really know about them? Well, for starters they are quite closely related to bees and wasps, and we have over 70 different kinds living in the UK. Some of these are quite rare though, and others are from overseas and been accidentally introduced. But still, it is quite a variety. More than just red or black.

Ants are fascinating creatures, often with a complex social life. Everything is based around the nest, the centre of which is the queen. She sits there, laying eggs which then grow up to be worker ants which do all the finding of food, raising the young and other, well, work! Some species across the world also have soldier ants, whose job it is to defend the nest, though none of the UK species have these. Instead defence is carried out by the workers. Ants vary in temperament depending on the species. The black ant with which we are most familiar are pretty quiet and docile. On the other hand, if you were to sit on the nest of a wood ant, you’d certainly know about it! Ants bite with their large jaws and even, in the case of wood ants, resort to chemical warfare. They can squirt an acid at attackers, trying to aim for the eyes.

Ants eat quite a varied diet. A large part of their diet is other insects, though not usually ones they’ve caught themselves. They are more of a clean-up crew, gathering in animals that have already died. Though do also have something of a sweet tooth, being attracted by fallen fruit. This is why they arrive at our picnics, attracted by sugary drinks. They also have found an unusual source of sugar from aphids. These little insects, such as greenfly, suck the sap from plants. But ants love them. Not to eat, but if they stroke the aphids, then the aphid gives off a drop of sugary liquid. The benefit for the aphid out of this is that ants then defend them against potential predators, such as ladybirds. It is an amazing world out there!

Dr Chris Andrews is Visitor Experience Manager at RSPB Frampton Marsh.