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What Is An Ant Nest?

That may seem like a silly question, but to be honest it’s a good question to ask, after all there are some ants that do not make nests, though those species are in the minority.

Ant nests are a form of shelter that protects the ants from their enemies and the environment around them, including the weather.  They also provide a suitable place for the ants to safely rear their brood and to keep their queens protected. Without their nests most ant colonies would die out very quickly.

Most ant nests are made in damp soil and can be several feet in depth and circumference. Other nests are made out of chewed wood pulp into a paper like substance, very similar to the way that wasps make their nests. Some nests are created inside the stems of plants, and even a ball made of leaves which have been ‘sewn’ together by the workers ants using their larvae as silk thread producers.  Some ant nests are very discreet with only one small entrance barely noticeable on the ground, whilst others, such as the southern Wood Ant, Formica rufa, make large mounds of earth and pine needles, some being several feet in height, and have many entrances/exits.


On the left is a picture of a Lasius fuliginosus “carton” nest sent to me by Timothy Goodman.  He found this nest amongst some pipe work belonging to a swimming pool.  This nest is a fascinating example of the diverse variety of nests that ants make.

Click on the picture for a larger view.

The complexity of ant nests varies from species to species too.  Some nests may be simple excavations of only a few tunnels and chambers, whilst others are a far more complex system of many chambers of various sizes with interconnecting tunnels. One of the best nest makers in the UK is the subterranean dwelling yellow meadow ant, Lasius flavus, whose nests are skilfully made.

Generally ants excavate their nests by biting a little chunk of soil with their jaws and carrying it outside the nest, or they sometimes will also use their front feet to assist; they’ll bite out the soil and drop it by their front feet, then rake the soil into a larger clump and then carry it out.  Each ant tends to take out what it dug rather than any organised chain gang.  Thus sometimes ants can get in each other’s way, but a little jostling soon puts that right. Depending on how many ants there are in the colony and how large the intended nest is, it can take anywhere from a few days to several weeks to create a finished nest. On top of that nests are constantly being expanded as the colony grows in size, especially when the large flying ants start to be produced.

The environment within an ant nest is strictly controlled by the ants.  The can open and close various entrances to provide more or less air circulation.  The lower parts of the nest tends to be cooler and perhaps damper and ant will often move their brood from various parts of the nest if it gets too cool, warm, wet or dry for the larvae.  This is why it is vitally important that you do not dig into an ant nest when searching for ants and/or queens for your ant farm.

During hibernation ants will seal all the entrances to their nest and move down to the bottom so as to avoid being in areas of frozen soil during the winter frosts and snows.

Most ants will fiercely protect their nests from enemies and danger, though there are a few species that prefer to run rather than fight, picking up their brood and queens to take them to safety.

Some ants can be a little lazy and rather than digging their own nest they will invade the nest of other ants, attacking them and killing them until their host ants give up and run away.

Let’s discuss more in-depth about the kinds of nests that various British species build.

Lasius niger are my favourite ant species and I have kept them for about 30 years. I have noticed that they tend to build many chambers connected with fairly large tunnels.  They seem to prefer to make their nests on a horizontal plane rather than just going straight down.  Some tunnels do, obviously, go in a downwards direction but on the whole they tend to have various levels in their nests. In the picture (above left) you can see my one year old Lasius niger colony which consists of perhaps 30-50 workers, a queen and a lot of brood.  Notice that there are two main chambers and that they are on the same horizontal plane or level. You can’t see the interconnecting tunnel as they have built it away from the glass side, but the tunnel is rather short. You can’t see the tunnel leading from the nest’s entrance to the chambers as it is dig against the right edge of the ant farm.  Lasius niger prefer to dig against a hard object such as a wall, a flat stone, or against the side of an ant farm. As the colony grows so the nest will expand both upwards and downwards. Lasius niger prefer to nest in moist soil though, of course, these can dry out over time.  They tend to build fairly long tunnels some of which come close to the surface and sometimes will even break through into the open air.

Lasius umbratus is the second of my two colonies, being about 5 years old.  These ants start their own nests/colonies by invading those built by Lasius niger, but they still build quite elaborate nests, similar to Lasius flavus. As you can see from the picture (above right) my umbratus colony has built quite an array of long shallow chambers connected by a system of tunnels.  The chambers are quite close together and many are connected by short tunnels.  Further out from the main chambers are a series of long winding tunnels and smaller chambers.  The queen tends to hide herself away in one of the more obscure chambers, though often wanders about into the large chambers where you can see the segregated brood.  

Myrmica rubra, a red stinging ant found in gardens, meadows and forests tend to build nests consisting of large tunnels and chambers, perhaps going down to almost half a metre. From my past experiences with keeping these ants they tended to remove so much soil that it seemed at times that they would empty all the soil out of the ant farm.  Some Myrmica species, such as Myrmica ruginodis, build smaller chambers but can be slightly nomadic in that they often move to a new nest location. My past ruginodis colony did this several time within a medium size fish tank that I kept them in.

Lasius fuliginosus, a jet-black, shiny ant with a heart-shaped head, larger than Lasius niger, live in ‘carton nests’ in old tree stumps where the wood has died and rotted to the extent that it is easy for the ants to bite the wood, chew it, mixing it with honeydew, and then spitting it out. This chewed wood then becomes a fairly tough material, tougher than the ‘paper’ created by wasps.  They will still dig tunnels down into the soil beneath the tree stump, and will move down into these deeper soil tunnels during the winter hibernation months.

Formica Fusca is another dark ant found in the UK which builds its nests in soil but rather than having a lot of horizontal tunnels and chambers like Lasius niger do, they tend to build deeper tunnels connected by a series of vertical shafts with one small entrance on the surface.  I had a colony of these once and they did just that, building their nest in the centre of the fish tank I kept them in, underneath a piece of dead wood.  

Formica rufa, the red wood ant found in pine forests of southern England, builds large thatched mounds which, like Lasius fuliginosus, tend to start centred around old tree stumps.  The wood ants bring soil and pine needles, most commonly, but also various other plant detritus, and build up over the stump until it is eventually completely covered.  The nest extends throughout the mound, into the stump, and in the ground below the mound. These mounds can be as high as one metre and have a circumference of several metres. They tend to be situated on the edge of pine forests, particularly where a pathway meets the forest edge; this is because the ants like to have the sun shine on the mound as much as possible in order to keep it warm.  It is interesting to note that Formica rufa build their mounds with the south facing slope being at a gentler incline than the other sides.  They do this so that the south-facing slope, which is the side facing the sun most of the day, has a larger surface area and therefore captures more of the sun’s warmth. The mounds have many entrances which are opened and closed in order to maintain a specific inside microenvironment.

Left is my young Lasius niger colony.

Right is my 5 year old Lasius umbratus colony.

You can click these pictures to see a larger version.

 Apologies for the poor quality.

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