Types of Ant Nests
Where do ants live? Ants live in nests. Yes, that is true, yet there is more to that simple answer. There are many types of ant nests, and they can be simple or complex in structure.
There are many types of ant nest. Ant nests are a form of shelter and home that protects ants from their enemies, and the environment around them, such as the weather. Ants build nests to provide them with a suitable place to safely rear their brood. Nests also enable ants to keep their queens and themselves protected within. Without nests most ant colonies would die out very quickly.
Throughout the world most types of ant build their nests in damp soil. These can be several feet in depth and circumference. Other species of ant make their nests out of wood pulp. The ants chew tiny peices of dead wood into a paper like substance, very similar to how wasps make their nests. Some ants live inside the stems of plants. Another ant species make their nest in a ball of leaves, which the workers ‘sew’ together using a sticky thread. The ant larvae produce this sticky thread.
Ant nests can be very discreet with only one small entrance, barely noticeable on the ground. Whilst other ants, such as the southern Wood Ant, Formica rufa, create large mounds from earth and pine needles. These thatched mounds can be several feet in height, with many entrances/exits.
The complexity of different nests
The complexity of various types of ant nests varies from species to species. Some species of ant create nests consisting of nothing more than a simple excavation, with very few tunnels and chambers. Other species of ant build far more complex systems of many chambers in various sizes, each with interconnecting tunnels.
Lasius flavus are perhaps one of the most skilled nest makers in the UK. These ants make very complexly structured nests.
Myrmica rubra build simple nests of several large vertically descending chambers. These chambers are clustered together, connected by thin corridors.
I keep a colony of Lasius umbratus that have made a complex of horizontal chambers spanning the width of their nesting box. The chambers are connected with a hole in the ceiling/floor of the chamber above/below.
Ants excavate nests by biting a little chunk of soil with their jaws, carrying it outside the nest. Sometimes they will also use their front feet to assist in moving the soil as they dig. The ants rake the soil into a larger clump before carrying it away. Each ant tends to transport its own load, rather than there being any organised chain gang.
Depending on how large a nest is required, it can take anywhere from a few days to several weeks to create. On top of that, nests are constantly being expanded as the colony grows in size. This includes the production of large flying ants during the summer months.
Most ants protect their nests from enemies. There are, however, a few species that prefer to run than fight, picking up their brood and queens to take them to safety. Some ants invade the nest of others, attacking or killing them until their target is defeated.
Ants control the environment within the various type of ant nests that they create, by opening or closing one or more entrances. This allows them to regulate air circulation. The lower parts of the nest tend to be cooler and perhaps damper. Worker ants 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 important that you do not dig into an ant nest when searching for ants for your ant farm. You will ruin the carefully balanced microenvironment within. You could very well injure and/or kill the queen in the process. I have learned this myself. When I was a kid, trying to start my first ant farm, I dug up a nest, completely ruining it, and never finding the queen. At the time I felt really bad about. Still do, in fact.
During hibernation ants seal all the entrances and move down to the bottom of the nest. This helps to prevent their being in areas of frozen soil during the winter frosts and snows.
Types of Ant Nests - Brtish Ants
These are my favourite ant species, and I have kept them for about 30 years. Lasius niger tend to build many chambers connected with fairly large tunnels. These ants 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. Lasius niger will often dig against hard objects such as a wall, a flat stone, or against the side of an ant farm. As the colony grows so the nest will expand in all directions. They prefer to nest in moist soil though, of course, these can dry out over time. They build fairly long tunnels, some of which come close to the surface, and may even break through into the open air.
The yellow meadow ant, builds complex nests, and are some of the most skilled of nest makers within the British species. They are rarely seen above-ground, preferring to forage for food underground, within the soil into which they are nesting. Often, they will build mounds, especially if the colony has been well established for a number of years. These mounds can have various forms of vegetation growing on them, which can help mask their obvious presence. The seeds that have produced the vegetation on their mounds have probably been dropped/blown on the soil of their mounds by various natural methods. I have kept this species a few times but never had success with them. I believe this was down to their foraging habits.
This ant start their own nests/colonies when the newly mated umbratus queen infiltrates an already established nest of Lasius niger. Once the umbratus queen produces her own workers, they will build quite elaborate nests, similar to Lasius flavus.
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. Some Myrmica species, such as Myrmica ruginodis, build smaller chambers. They can be slightly nomadic in that they often move to a new nest location. My past ruginodis colony did this several times within a medium size fish tank that I kept them in.
A jet- black, shiny ant with a heart shaped head, larger than Lasius niger. They live in an unusual type of nest known as ‘carton’ nests, which they create in old tree stumps, where the wood has died and rotted so that it is easy for the ants to bite and chew the wood. The ants mix this chewed wood with honeydew, making a substance like Papier-mâché. The pulp is used to create the physical structure of the nest, similar to the way many wasps do. They 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.
A species of dark coloured ant found in the UK, which builds its nests in soil. These ants build deep tunnels connected by a series of vertical shafts, with one small entrance on the surface. I owned a colony of these once, and they built their nest in the centre of the fish tank I kept them in, underneath a piece of dead wood.
A red wood ant found in pine forests of southern England, builds large thatched mounds which, like Lasius fuliginosus, tend to start around old tree stumps. The wood ants bring soil and various plant detritus, commonly pine needles, to build up over the tree stump until it is eventually completely covered. The nest extends throughout the mound, into the stump, and into the ground. 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 sunshine 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. This acts as a kind of central heating method, as when the colder nights come in.
The heated surface of the mound slowly releases the heat it has stored during the day, which radiates into the nest. Heat is generated by the decomposing plant material on, and within the mound. This, again, radiates heat into the nest. This is actually very important during the winter, as it helps prevent the ants from freezing in cold conditions such as frost, when hibernating.
The ants maintain a specific microenvironment within the nest, by opening and closing the many entrances on the mound. This is extremely important for the development of the brood.
A very small yellow-brown species of ant that often builds its nests inside rotting, hollowed out acorns. These ants have small colonies of only a few hundred ants. Often these ants live in close proximity and harmony to other ant species. You have a greater chance is finding these type of ant nests in oak forests in the south of England.
The types of ant nests of some species in the tropics of the world can be even more impressive
Some species of Leafcutter ant create huge nests. One such nest was found to contain a chamber so large, that a man could stand up in one!
Weaver ants, as their name suggest, “weave” their nests. The ants find a suitable tree or large plant and use their bodies as living chains of 2 or 3 ants to pull leaves together. Other ants pick up their larvae and tap the mouth of the larvae to one of the leaf edges. The larvae produce a sticky, silk like thread, much like a spider does. The ants then use the larvae to stitch the leaves together. This creates a ball of leaves in which the ants live.
Some army ant species do not have nests in the traditional sense, but they are nomadic. Army ants nest in one area for a short time, whilst the brood develops into adult ants. Other than that, they are constantly on the move. When the ants stop their nomadic phase, they create a bivouac made of their own living bodies. Huge numbers of ants link themselves together, to form the walls of this living nest. The queen and brood remain deep within the safety of the bivouac. The remainder of the worker ants forage the local area in large numbers.
Once it is time to move on, the nest breaks up and the colony marches off in search for another area. Some of these army ant colonies can have up to 20 million ants, and so they can very quickly wipe out prey fauna, especially other insects. By moving about they not only find more food, but it allows the area that have moved out of to recover its fauna.
This is a picture of my captive Myrmica rubra colony. As you can see the ants have built a series of large design chambers, linked by a tunnel. The thin horizontal tunnel you see disappearing to the right is a dead end.
From my experience with other rubra colonies that I have had, this seems to be their usual nest build.
This is a photograph of a seemingly abandoned part of my Lasius umbratus colony.
Note the many horizontal chambers that the ants have built, which are directly linked together by holes in the ceiling/floor of each chamber.
This picture was kindly provided to me by Timothy Goodman. He was working in the pump room of a swimming pool in, I think, a school. He discovered this ant nest among the pipework.
These types of ant nests are known as ‘carton’ nests, made by Lasius fuliginosus. Note the similarity of this method of nest building to that of a wasp. The ants created this nest by chewing wood and mixing it with honeydew.
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