Species of British Ant
There are some fifty or so species of ant in the UK, most native, but there are a few introduced species. Below I have described some of the most commonly encountered species.
Perhaps the best-known ant to the people of England is Lasius niger, the common black garden ant; it certainly is known by gardeners and household owners due to its tendency to enter houses. It tends to nest under pavements, in soil, along the edges of lawns, in fact almost anywhere. It is a very quick, robust and prolific ant, using formic acid and its jaws as a means of attack/defence. Its colonies can grow up to a size of 15,000 workers, though about 4000 to 7000 is perhaps the average. They eat insects, nectar, and even the bodies of their own dead, or ants from other colonies. They are also very fond of sugary substances but eat a variety of insects including flies, beetles, the larvae of various flies and beetles, fruit and honeydew.
They are perhaps one of the easiest ants to keep in captivity due to the fact that they are harmless and possess no sting. They are a very interesting and active ant.
Another common ant found in gardens is Lasius flavus, the yellow meadow ant. These ants build small mounds in our lawns and are often mistaken for red ants due to their yellow-orange colour, yet they are no more harmful than their common black cousins, Lasius niger.
It is the most skilled nest builder found in the UK and can also be found in fields and meadows where they build much larger mounds. Lasius flavus tend to forage below ground and therefore are not often seen except perhaps when its nest is disturbed, or during the annual mating flights. Their diet is similar to Lasius niger but they tend to forage below ground and therefore probably stumble across more soft–bodied larvae. These ants are very similar, almost identical, when compared to Lasius umbratus, as seen with the naked eye.
An unusual ant very similar to Lasius flavus in appearance and nest building, however these ants do not start their colonies off in the usual manner. The newly mated umbratus queen will seek out a Lasius niger colony and then pick off a single niger worker some distance from the nest, and drag it into a hiding place. She will then use the dead ant to obtain its colony scent. Once she has done this, she will approach the colony of the niger ant she just killed and will cautiously enter the nest without making any sudden or aggressive moves. As the queen enters the nest, she will gently touch the niger workers with her antennae and, if all goes well for her, take up residence within. Shortly afterwards the niger workers turn on their own queen and kill her. Perhaps the umbratus queen gives of a pheromone that encourages the niger workers to do this. The umbratus queen then becomes the new queen, and the niger workers take care of her and her brood, as if they were their own. This results in a colony containing both black and yellow ants. Eventually, however, the niger workers will die off, and, as there is no niger queen to replace them, the nest slow becomes made up of umbratus workers in its entirety.
These ants are larger and faster than Lasius niger, having slender jet-black, shiny bodies with a heart-shaped head. They tend to live in carton nests made from chewing up dead wood and mixing it with honeydew, similar to the way wasps build their nests. The resultant paste then is applied to the nesting area, usually an old log, which then hardens into a tough structure. It is interesting to note that, like the Lasius umbratus queens, the Lasius fuliginosus queen cannot start her own colonies, and therefore will do so by invading the nests of Lasius umbratus. Therefore, a colony that was once a Lasius niger can, via Lasius umbratus, become a Lasius fuliginosus colony. Neither Lasius niger or umbratus make carton nests as fuliginosus do, so once the fuliginosus colony has taken over their host’s nest and become established they will look for a suitable new nesting site. Again, insects make a large part of their diet.
There are seven species of the Myrmica family found in the UK. These ants tend to be a deep red in colour and can deliver a mildly painful sting. The most common of the seven species is Myrmica ruginodis which can be found throughout Britain, and lives in small colonies with between 100-300 members, but can have many egg laying queens in one colony. It is interesting to note that there are two sub-species of Myrmica ruginodis; one that has queens which are visibly larger than the workers, and the other has queens which are almost the same size as the worker. Myrmica rubra is polygynous with larger than worker queens. They are aggressive and seem to be happier attacking than running away. Again, another insect feeder but also fond of spiders.
This ant is a small black stinging ant which reminds me of a cross between Lasius niger and Myrmica rubra, though are in the same genus as the latter. They are typically found along the coasts of Southern and Western England. They can have nests containing up to 30,000 ants, but the average is perhaps 10,000.
They eat insects but an interesting feature of this ant is that they appear to bury their food in mounds of soil; I have certainly witnessed this in a Tetramorium impurum colony I used to keep.
Another common British ant are those belonging to the species Formica, also known as the wood ant. Many of these species build huge mounds from pine needles and other woodland litter on the edge of forest clearings or pathways and can number more than 100,000 members per colony. These ants are large, aggressive and attack by biting and spraying formic acid very effectively if disturbed. They are found in Southern England as well as other European countries. In some countries they are known as the Horse Ant.
They eat a wide variety of insects and insect larvae, and a large colony of these ants can bring in up to 100,000 insects per day for food!
Another wood ant species; this one black, and very much timider than its red cousins. They prefer to nest under rotting logs and are found from the Midlands down to Southern England. They have populations of usually less than 1000, and though can be polygynous, they do not normally have very many queens in each colony. They have extremely good eyesight but tend to be very timid, running rather than fighting. Again, insects make a large part of their diet.
These are the largest of the native British Ants and are similar to Formica fusca but have a deeper red colour about them. These ants are slave-makers and will raid the colonies of Formica fusca, stealing their brood to take back to their nest, not to eat, but to raise into adulthood. These fusca adults then become slaves to the sanguinea colony. The sanguinea queen cannot start a new colony on her own and so will find and force her way into a Formica fusca nest, creating herself a little burrow within that colony. She then lays her own eggs defending them vigorously from the host workers. Once her own workers hatch, they will seek out and kill the host queen, though the sanguinea queen may kill her herself. Once the fusca queen is dead then remainder of the fusca colony accept her as their new queen. The habit of raiding further colonies of Formica fusca to provide slaves is not essential for survival as the sanguinea, once they have established a nest inside that of a fusca colony, can live perfectly well as a sanguinea colony without the need for slaves.