Meadow Ants (Lasius flavus) swarming

Greenway, Stratford, 25 July 2009


My love affair with ants started at a young age, when I used to lift the stones of the pathways to watch the nests underneath. I realised that what was happening had a kind of order to it, and each ant appeared to be performing a role for the common good of the colony. However, the idea that the coordination of roles required a communication method did not occur to me.


A defining moment was lifting a particularly large slab to find two nests at each side of the slab. One was black, one was red, what I now know to be lasius niger and myrmica rubra. Over the next few days I lifted the slab regularly to see the expansion of the nests. The ants seemed to become used to this regular dose of light and ceased to respond to it in a frenzied way. The idea that they were able to learn did not occur to me, but I now realise it is a significant thing for a sub-10,000-neuron brain to do. It has to have not just room to store new things, but the structure to convert memory into knowledge, which can feed back to modify behaviour.


One day I lifted the slab to see a full-scale war in progress. The nests had finally met in the centre of the slab, and negotiation was not on the agenda. I watched as the slightly larger but stingless black ants attempted to slice bits off the anatomy of the reds, while the reds attempted to manoeuvre under the blacks and sting them from a prone position. There was no circling, as between boxers, where there are competing urges of personal attack and personal defence. In this war neither side seemed to show any urge to self-preservation, and the only defence was territorial: some ants blocked holes and attacked without moving, others moved directly to engage the enemy. Once again I missed the fact that this uncoordinated battle was actually following a preset, ancient plan.


I had to go in to bed, and the next evening there was no sign of living black ants. Red ants patrolled the corridors of the defeated colony, admittedly in some agitation; but this agitation became less as the days passed. I also began to notice the occasional black ant among the workers. I later found out that these were not surviving turncoats but captured eggs raised to serve the red queen.


I was hooked on ants from that moment. It was only many years later that it blossomed into a semi-scientific interest, but that summer with the slab ants was the start.


Lydbrook, Forest of Dean, UK, 1996.

As far as I can identify, Myrmica rubra working on a dead worm. About 3mm in length.

Frankston, Victoria, Australia, 1994.

Dolichoderus scabridus? About 15mm in length.

Karwarra, Victoria, Australia, 1997.

Myrmecia Forficata? At 30mm, the largest ant I've ever seen!

Arthur's Seat, Victoria, Australia, 1997.

Myrmecia Pilosula? About 8mm long.

Arthur's Seat, Victoria, Australia, 2001.

Rhytidoponera Metallica? About 15mm long.

Otway Lighthouse, Victoria, Australia, 1997.

Myrmecia Nigriscapa? about 20mm long.

This is what we in Britain think of as the standard Australian Bulldog ant.

Cairns, Queensland, Australia, January 2001.

This is a queen ant, hence the wings, and I think it is a green tree ant (Oecophylla Smaragdina). Body length 25mm.

It flew into the Kuranda light railway carriage and then flew off, so I presume it was still unmated.

Mount Lookout, Victoria, Australia, January 1997.

Body size about 10mm. I think this is a species of Myrmeciinae, possibly mandibularis? Any suggestions?

Mount Martha, Victoria, Australia, January 2001.

I think it is a species of Odontomachus, but the book says they live in arid habitats. This ant walked into the surf, swam a bit and walked out again. It didn't seem to need to clean itself or recover from the ordeal, so I'm calling it the surfing ant, although I didn't spot a board.