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I have been interested in nature for most of my life but since I retired I spend as much time as I can exploring the nature reserves and wildlife hotspots of my adopted home, Dorset in southern England. Whilst out I record what I see and take snaps where I can (I am no photographer!) and that forms the basis of my Nature of Dorset website. When I find something new I like to research it and write about it in my nature notes, it is how I learn and hopefully you might find my notes helpful as well!

This website is for the people of Dorset interested in wildlife and for people from elsewhere interested in the wildlife of Dorset!

26 March, 2014

The wood ant passes the acid test

It only recently dawned on me that ants are related to bees and wasps, they are all of the order hymenoptera. One would think that they have little in common with their more air born cousins and, in appearance at least, that is possibly true in that they look very different to the most familiar species of wasps and bees that we might see. A closer look, though, reveals a resemblance to some species of solitary bee and digger wasps.
This is most noticeable in the wood ant (Formica rufa) because
it is a larger insect and it easier to see the large, oval abdomen, thin waste and narrow thorax that is also a feature of some bees and wasps. Rather than in looks the ant is more akin to bees and wasps in its behaviour.  It forms large colonies around a single queen with hundreds and hundreds of female workers tending her and her babies with a few males to keep the queen happy. In early spring they can be seen swarming in wriggling brown masses in coniferous woodlands across Dorset and, of course, several species of bees and wasps swarm in a similar way so perhaps there is a family likeness after all.
The wood ant does not sting like some of its relatives, instead it can (and does) fire formic acid from its rear end when disturbed and this can sting if you are on the receiving end of it. Jays are known to take advantage of this and 'bathe' in these ants nests to get the acid on their feathers to kill off parasites.
Wood ants are well known and can usually be found on heathland, and especially in conifer plantations, building huge mounds of pine needles as nests. They can also been seen crossing backwards and forwards in straight lines across woodland rides and footpaths on their way to and fro between a food supply and their nest.
I was surprised to learn that they are omnivorous and actually prefer animals for food and that they are great eaters of small insects. In some southern European countries they are a protected species because of their great value in destroying forest pests!
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