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Bites and Stings.









Ants, as most people know if they've ever had any direct contact with them, will bite and sting in defence; but these weapons are also used to attack and kill other insects and sometimes people.

So what is the difference between an ant biting you or an ant stinging you? For a start, a bite is never fatal in humans unless infection gets into the open wound, whereas a sting can cause an allergic reaction and make a person go into anaphylactic shock, leading to respiratory and heart failure in severe cases.

When most ants bite, depending on the jaw size of the species, it can be anything from a small nip of the skin to a deep incision which draws blood. Some ants then spray formic acid into the open wound, which makes the bite area burn like fire; but if you can avoid getting bitten in the first place, then a spray of acid is only dangerous if it gets into your eyes or you have your mouth open. For this reason I would advise that you never put an ant (living or dead) into your mouth, as your tongue may swell up which could then choke you. I have read of a few who have done this, but it is a practise that is stupid and irresponsible; and even though chocolate covered ants are sold, you wouldn't put a wasp or bee in your mouth, so leave ants where they belong and DO NOT EAT THEM!

The sting of an ant is an entirely different thing to her bite, as more people have died or become extremely ill from being stung by some ant species. A good example is the Australian "Jack Jumper" belonging to the Myrmecia genus. Stings contain a venom which is injected into the victims skin. This then gets into the bloodstream, and depending on the toxicity of the poison, will cause either a burning sensation and localized redness of the skin, or an extremely painful reaction which can cause paralysis of the infected area. Some ant stings may cause a person to lose control of a finger, hand or even their arm for several hours, until the venom wears off or they receive medical treatment.

It is fair to say that ants rarely attack anything larger than their normal prey, unless provoked by the disturbance of their nest for instance. Bites and stings are used to overcome other insects when hunting for food, or during times of battle against enemies which include other ants. Think of a sting as a hypodermic needle that delivers liquid from a syringe. The sting of an ant is nothing more than a hollow needle from which the venom in the poison sac is pumped into the victim. While the bite or sting from just one ant is hardly noticeable, imagine being bitten or stung by hundreds or even thousands of very angry ants. You will certainly not want to hang around for too long, despite the fact that you may be 100,000 times their size; and pray that you are never in a position where you cannot move out of the path of an African (Dorylus species) Driver ant raid, as you'll end up on the menu for their hungry larvae.

Don't have nightmares about this though, as more people die from natural causes every day than have died from ant bites/stings in the last century. In fact, you're more likely to die from influenza or other diseases than from insects, spiders, snakes etc.

Ants jaws are very powerful, and can bite through skin or break open the toughest chitin shell of an insect, yet they can also be very gentle when picking up brood. A good example is this Camponotus queen photo taken by my good friend Tom Nitti from Somerset.


Ant Communication.

Just how do ants "talk" to each other ? Unlike us, who use our mouth and tongue to talk and communicate our needs; or by the non-verbal use of " body language", ants cannot speak. They do use body language to a degree, as can be seen sometimes in the aggressive stance of a worker/soldier ant when confronted with an enemy. The head is held high, jaws opened wide in a threatening posture, while the antennae sweep the air or are folded back ready to engage in combat.

When an ant comes across one of her fellow nest mates, she will often touch the other ant with her antennae. This action serves to varify if the other ant has the same colony scent, as colony odour serves as a more useful sign of recognition in ants that sight does. Ants have several different chemicals in their bodies which produce these smells,or pheromones. Depending upon which scent is being given off at the time will trigger what kind of response is required. Pheromones can be used to tell other ants where to find food, or the location of an enemy. If an alarm scent is active, then it will either [1] cause the ants to attack the enemy, or [2] send them rushing back to defend, or evacuate the nest. This response depends largely on the size of the defending nest, and the number of fighters it can muster. Also, some species are more aggressive than others and have a strong soldier caste. It is fair to say that ants, on the whole, are far more warlike than we humans and make us seem quite tame and peaceful by comparison.

Many ants do make noise by stridulating, much like grasshoppers and crickets do. It is only just audible to the human ear if an ant is held very close to it, and even then there is no guarantee you will hear it. All ants seem to rely more on touch and smell, than on sight or sound. Ants don't have ears, but can detect sounds as vibrations picked up by their legs from the ground; much like the 'ping' sound heard on the sonar device of a submarine. So, despite their lack of verbal ability, ants do find ways of "talking" and "listening" to each other to communicate their needs; both in and out of the nest. Ants also have no nose or other apparent olfactory organ, yet they can smell.

How is this done? Well, the antennae, apart from being touch sensitive organs (hence the name "feelers" ) are also an ants olfactory organ, or nose; and are capable of detecting lots of different odours in chemical form. This is why pheromones play such an important role in recognizing an ants friends or foes.

Foraging (Hunting) for Food.

Ants workers, when finding food, may be able to carry or drag it back to the nest themselves, as ants can carry up to ten times their own weight. So, if an ant finds a dead bluebottle for instance, it is like a man moving a light aeroplane over rough terrain. Some food items, or insect prey however, are too much for a single ant to cope with. This now calls for a different approach! The forager must recruit help from her sisters. She will either, (a) return to the nest, or (b) communicate her find to fellow foragers along the way, as ants tend to leave scent trails to follow. Usually the former is the best course of action, as there are far more worker ants at home as there are out hunting. Large food items can be easily moved from where they are found back to the nest, owing to the number of extra helpers recruited from home. If it is not carried back whole; then it is usually cut up into smaller pieces, which make transportation back to the nest much easier.

Workers of the wood-ant family can make trackways that last for many years and; as they are constantly in use, the scent trail is renewed on a regular basis. It is also a fact that ants use landmarks and ultra-violet light (as bees do), to find their way about. Even when the sun is not shining, as long as cloud cover is not too thick, ants like Formica rufa can be seen roaming the forest floor.

I videoed a fascinating sight a few years back!! Three F.rufa workers were carrying a caterpillar; presumably back to their nest? Two of them pulled in one direction; but the other ant kept pulling in the opposite direction. So the two ants got a bit fed up with this after awhile; and they both bodily lifted the prey and their sister high into the air and carried both caterpillar and ant along for 2 minutes. Eventually the 3rd worker must have got the message, and all three ants pulled in the right direction. THIS HAD TO SEEN TO BE BELIEVED !!!

All worker ants are females.

Just to put the records straight, all worker ants; be they major, minor or soldier castes, and this includes other social insects such as wasps, bees or termites, are all under-developed infertile females.
So, to refer to a worker ant or a soldier as " He " is technically wrong, as all worker and soldier castes are, in reality, daughters of the queen or queens; depending on whether the colony is monogynous (having only 1 queen per nest/colony) or polygynous (having many queens per nest/colony).

Worker ants do have ovaries which are capable of producing eggs; but as they are not as large as a fully functional queens, they only lay about 3 to 7 eggs per year, certainly not more than this; but as a nest may contain thousands of workers, it is possible for many 100's of trophic eggs to appear in a nest in very early spring.
These eggs are always infertile, and are usually eaten; but if by a quirk of fate they do hatch into larvae, then they will only produce male ants, as males always develop from unfertilized eggs.

Male ants never do any work of any kind, and cannot even feed themselves, as their mouth parts are incapable of chewing food.
So adult males have to be fed like larvae by their own sister workers.
As male ants only live for one thing, mating with the new queens; which after having done the act of mating, they often die of exhaustion. Males who do make it home are driven away or killed by the very same sisters who so lovingly fed and cared for them, as they have fulfilled their purpose in life; and as males don't work, they would only be a liability to the colony afterward.

Queen ants are of course, always female; and as they are the main egg laying mothers of any ant nest, a colony cannot exist without one.
To some extent, which is still somewhat of a scientific mystery, the queen can determine which of her eggs will produce workers, new queens or males.
Males eggs are produced when the queen withholds sperm, and it is believed that queen eggs are laid earlier than worker eggs; and at lower nest temperatures, although eggs which produce male ants are often the very first to be laid.

So please remember, when you see a busy worker ant, bee or wasp going about their business, always say "look at her" or "there she goes", as it is always the females that do all the hard work in ant society; or in any other social insect colony for that matter, which includes bees, hornets, termites or wasps.

Do Ants care about their dead?

To be honest, we cannot really say whether ants feel the same way as humans do about their fallen comrades, or dearly deceased loved ones, as they don't show any reverence that we can see for their dead sisters. They do carry out any dead ants and either place them on a midden pile (waste disposal heap) or just drop them away from the nest.

Here we see a Myrmica worker ant (possibly ruginodis looking at the length of the epinotal spines) carrying the dead body of another,(probably her sister) who has either died of old age, or by an injury perhaps from a battle while out foraging?

Photo by Brian Valentine.

This may not show much respect, but it certainly keeps harmful organisms that might grow on the dead bodies away from possibly affecting the colony and its precious brood.

Do Ants have emotions?

I hate to use TV aliens as an example here, but think of the Borg from Star Trek with their collective hive mind; and this is how social insects behave in many ways.
We refer to a seething mass of angry ants, but as an ants brain is so less complex than that of most mammals, then they are not really capable of feeling emotions such as anger, love, hate, sadness or joy.
A single ant may be able to lift and carry up to 100 times her own weight, but alone she poses no major threat to anything that is not much bigger than herself; but get 10 ants together and you then start to get a force to be reckoned with.
A hundred ants can make a fully grown human run away in pain, while thousands or even millions will make even a large animal like an elephant take flight to avoid those tiny jaws and stings.

A single ant is like a molecule or a single cell, but many ants make up a super-organism which has something akin to a vast intelligence, even if it is the working of many tiny minds acting in unison for the greater good of all. We say that ants are angry, yet they are purely acting on a basic instinct which we all possess, and that is the survival and procreation of our species, as otherwise what is the meaning of life except to create more life and the continued existence of same. Ants that attack humans, or other invaders of their nests, feel no hatred, animosity or anger toward the invader; yet they act like they do, as who would ever run away from a bunch of really calm ants which walked quietly onto your hands and did absolutely nothing?

Anyone who has been ant hunting and lifted a stone, under which was an ants nest, will know that if you just watch them they will often just gather up their brood and retreat underground; but if you interfere with the nest and try to collect the ants and brood, then the scene soon changes into one of utter chaos to begin with. Yet as soon as the ants realize what is happening, the chaos turns into organized attacks on the intruder and you soon wish you'd left them alone instead of poking your dirty great fingers into their home.

So, while an ants brain may have much smaller ganglia and neurones than ours, when they work together as a big super-brained organism, they show intelligence which makes them seem almost human; and that is what may make ants appear to have emotions of a sort, as it is only the size of the ants brain that stops it from advancing up the ladder of evolution and behaving more like us. You have to admire them though, as they are the closest thing to human society, despite not having large brains or showing emotion.


Queen Dominance Fights.

Since 1967 I have made a few fairly careful studies of wild ant nests. I have observed Formica fusca in North Devon which are very much like their northern cousins Formica lemani.
Fusca live under large rocks as a rule, and often in very open heathland. They tend to have smallish colonies, though often show a tolerance of nearby nests, which could indicate they are related in some way, even if only distantly?

Most nests seem to have just 1, 2 or 3 queens; but a few larger ones may have up to 6. I can't say if one queen is more dominant than the rest, as I was on holiday and didn't have enough time to study them long enough.
On the other hand, I have spent a lot of time watching and studying wild nests of F. lemani; and noticed that even the smallest of nests had 3 or 4 queens, with bigger ones having from 7 to 12 queens.
Lemani live in much cooler regions of Britain, and from my own studies there seems less hostility between any dominant queen(s) and those lower in rank.
This may indicate a close family bonding between mothers, daughters, sisters, close cousins and aunts perhaps, as even nests several feet away from each show a lot of tolerance of each other when the workers meet; and I have never seen any fighting break out from queens found in the same nest, regardless of age or strength.

The same applies to the Formica rufa group, as I have found as many as 70 queens in a very large mound.
I have seen no evidence to suggest that fights for supremacy happen with rufa queens, as they all appear to get along fine; and if any tension does build up, then queens will often move out and form new daughter nests by budding, which may, or may not regroup depending upon circumstances.
I believe that many polygynous species use budding as a form of avoiding queen hostility, as many F. lemani nests are just a bit too close for normal comfort, yet exist in a zone of mutual agreement with each other.

That is not to say that queens may never fight for supremacy over the colony, but unlike monogynous ants those which do tolerate many queens per nest come to some kind of understanding as to who stands where in the order of rank.

How do you identify ants?

Okay, so you have found ants and want to know what species or genera they are, right?

Well the first things you will notice are the size and colour of the ants you've found; but that doesn't tell you a lot, as if say they are small red ants for instance, they could be any species. So how do you ID ants? Well it helps for a start if you know what genera or species can be found in a particular region or country, as ants that are common in the south of England for example may not be found in the north or even in the midlands, sometimes not even in the next bordering county.

To identify an ant specifically you may well need a strong magnifying lens or a microscope. Some species may only be recognisable from another by having longer epinotal spines or less body hairs. Some by the number of segments in their petiole (waist section), while others have a differently shaped gaster (abdomen). Photos may help, or you can take or send a specimen along to your local natural history museum or insect house at a zoo; but please bear in mind that even the best entomologist in the world may not know all insects, as many are specialists in their own particular field.

Most ant enthusiasts want to know more than just "I have red ants or black ants" and like to know what species they may be keeping. However, words like funiculus (segments of the antennae) or clypeus (shield like structure on the front of the head above an ants jaws) can be confusing and not always an aid to the idenfication of a species. Some ants have noticable notches on their head, or grooves along their face giving them the appearance of corrugated iron, while others are smooth. For the most part ants are dull matt, though a few are very shiny and gleam like polished metal, often seen on black ant species.

So if anyone sends me a photo of an ant I cannot always tell them what she is, as anyone who is not an expert and who says they can ID a species just by looking at a photo or drawing of an ant is just not being honest, as there are some charlatans out there who will claim they can do so when in actual fact they can not; and even some experts will tell you it is a difficult task without the proper equipment. There are some very good books and ant sites which may help, but don't be surprised if someone tells you that you have a certain ant species and then it turns out to something else entirely,  as even simple things like colour and size are no sure way of telling what an ant may be.

The Colouration of Ants.

Why are ants different colours? Look at differing species even within the same genera, and you will find that they come in several varying colours or colour tones. Why for instance is Lasius niger dark brown while its close cousin Lasius flavus is amber yellow? As L. flavus lives and forages mostly underground most of its life, do the workers need to be so bright and flashy, as their queens are rather dull looking ladies by comparison to their daughters.

Nearly all the wood ant species of the genera Formica are 2 toned rusty red to brownish grey in colour, and in my opinion make a very impressive and beautiful sight going back and forth along their foraging trails from their large conical nest mounds. Yet many of the other Formica family such as F. fusca are just a dull charcoal black.

It makes a lot of sense for ants to be dark brown on soil, or green as in the case of Weaver Ants (The Australian species [Oecophylla smaragdina] is commonly referred to as the green tree ant) which spend most of their life in nesting in the leaves of trees or other green foliage nearer to the ground; but to be a bright red ant as in the vast majority of Myrmica species, makes you stand out like a ruby among a collection of emeralds, as most red ants show up as fast moving red dots which stick out like a sore thumb among the green of grasses and other vegetation. Red is of course a warning colour, as is yellow and black banding on a wasp for instance, yet being red or yellow in the world of ants does not make you highly dangerous or venomous. True, red ants have a very painful sting; but our British Common Wasp family Vespidae contains the wonderful large Hornet Vespa crabro, which I believe can kill a fully grown adult human with as little as 3 stings if you happen to be allergic to wasp stings. Though I have never heard of anyone in Britain dying from an ant sting or bite, and even in countries where ants are more venomous it is far less common than people being killed by bees, scorpions, spiders or wasps.

This still leaves the question of why are ants different colours unanswered. To be honest, I just don't know; but we do know that insects see in the ultra-violet light spectrum and do not perceive things such as flowers in the same way that we do. So the colours of ants as we see them will be entirely different from how they would appear to other creatures in the insect world. The bio-diversity of our world is what makes life on Earth so wonderful, and for an insect that relies more on its sense of smell and touch rather than its eyes (or in some cases the lack of them), ants are truly remarkable beings for their size and rival us humans in so many ways on the evolutionary scale of things. It is fair to say that if all mammals died out on this planet within the next million years or so, ants would remain as the masters, or to be more correct, mistresses of the world, regardless of their size or colour!

British Ant Species Nuptial Flights.

So what native ants do fly and when do they do so here in Britain?

The very earliest flying time is mid June, and only then when it gets hot enough. Ants that fly in June are Formica rufa and Tetramorium caespitum. Both fly more often than not during the last 10 days of the month, only flying if the winds are mild and not blustery.

The vast majority of our ants fly from mid July onward and into August. This includes most of the ants across the British Isles such as Formica species, Myrmica species, nearly all Lasius species, Leptothorax and Temnothorax; and Tapinoma.
The main exception to this is Lasius alienus, which always flies in October and never earlier than late September.
During a very bad spell of weather this species doesn't fly at all, and all alate adults are killed prior to winter with new sexually active colony members being produced the following year to fly again and found new nests.

I must be perfectly honest and say that I don't know the mating times of some of our rarer ant species, but I do know most of the common species and when they fly, so this will answer most of your questions about the mating flight times in British ants. I must stress that this thread ONLY covers ants found in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales; and does not include Europe, as countries father north or south have different ants and mating flight times too.

I have heard some bad information from other sources to say that a few of our British native ants fly as early as April or May. This is utter rubbish as our British weather is just too cold during our spring, and at this time winged ants (alates) are not mature enough. Young queens need to feed well before leaving the nest and flying away to found their own nest too.

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