Wood ant

Latin name: Formica acquilonia; F.lugubris; F. exsecta; F. sanguineawood ants

Size: Queens up to 12cm long

Where: Woodlands, especially coniferous woodlands e.g. Falls of Leny woods; Coille Coire Chuilc (Tyndrum)

When: Spring - autumn

The anthills you find in the National Park’s woodlands are every bit as exciting and complex as the African termite hills that feature in so many wildlife documentaries – and they are much more accessible!

All four wood ant species more commonly found in Scotland build these mounds, often out of pine needles. Each is placed painstakingly in its correct position by the worker ants to get maximum benefit from any warmth from the sun. The biggest hills can reach 1m high and 2m across.

The worker ants, which are all female, have short, hard lives. They only survive for a season, and in that time, besides building and maintaining the mound they nursemaid the eggs and ant larvae, and bring all the food into the mound, carrying up to 1.5 times their own bodyweight each day. They kill their prey by shooting it with formic acid. This may play a part in maintaining the ecological balance of the woodland, by keeping down the caterpillars of moths and sawflies that could damage the trees if left unchecked.

The males lives are even shorter. They live only long enough to take flight and fertilise the eggs of the next generation.

By contrast the queens, whose job is to lay all the eggs and keep the colony going, can live for up to 15 years. In some species queens will also fly to the mounds of other species, kill the queens and force the workers to tend her and her young. These species are known as ‘slavemakers’ for obvious reasons!

On bright spring days look carefully at an ant hill and you may notice thousands of the insects congregated on the sunny side of the mound. They really are sunbathing. Once they are thoroughly warmed they will go deep into the heart of the mound and use their body heat to keep the incubating eggs and larvae warm.

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Any natural place contains an infinite reservoir of information, and therefore the potential for inexhaustible new discoveries.

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods