The Southern Wood Ant (Formica rufa) is one of the largest ants in the UK and it can be easily recognised by its reddish colour, black head and tiny waist. It is known as the ‘Southern Wood Ant’ because it is mainly found in the south of England and in Wales. Further species occur in the north. Wood ants create large mound nests in open glades or on the edges of woodlands in sunny, sheltered locations. The ant mounds are dome-shaped and are often over a meter high and two metres wide. They are usually constructed of leaves, twigs and thousands of pine needles. Avoid treading on one of these mounds as wood ants can be very territorial and can bite quite fiercely.
Wood ants often live in a huge colony that is made up of about two hundred thousand ants. A colony of this size could have over a hundred Queen ants whose main purpose is to produce eggs. There will also be thousands of female workers whose duty is to collect food, keep the nest clean and look after the young. Interestingly Queen ants can live up to fifteen years while the workers often have a life span of one year only. The colony also has workers who act like soldiers who have no hesitation at all in attacking and removing any other ant species found near their nest.
Wood Ants mainly eat insects and other invertebrates, especially aphids which are seen as a pest to foresters. Sometimes Wood Ants are actually introduced into woodlands and forests as a form of pest management. Wood Ants have large jaws which are powerful enough to bite through most insects or immobilise them to make eating easier.
In June, when days are very humid, you may be able to see many winged male Wood ants and Queens flying around. Hundreds of males and many Queens leave the nest to reproduce and engage in a mating flight. Once a male has mated with a Queen it soon dies while the Queen sheds her wings and looks for a suitable place to create a new nest. Interestingly, Queens are able to lay eggs that produce workers and also eggs that produce winged reproductive males and females. Most of the eggs are laid from April onwards. As soon as the young emerge they know what their purpose is, whether that be cleaning, finding food, defending the territory, building the nest and any other duties necessary needed to keep a colony functioning properly. They are clever little insects indeed!