One species we had an eventful 2021 observing in the garden was Lasius niger, the Black Ant. Certainly one of the more interesting species to keep an eye on as they are always up to something.
Our first encounter of note with this species, beyond their typical fussing about, was this odd behaviour recorded on the 2nd June 2021 on the lip of our old compost bin.
This pat-a-cake like behaviour could be one ant determining if the other actually belongs to the colony within the compost bin. A colony we discovered later by accident and probably / unfortunately almost destroyed. Ants are social insects but only as far as their own colony goes. Outsiders are shunned and often attacked and any ant considered by the colony to be suspicious is “checked out”.
However a more likely reason for this behaviour (in this instance) is that ants of the same colony will look out for each other and due to the time spent embraced in this way, it is likely one was feeding the other which it recognised as undernourished. This is supported by the fact the ant was allowed to go about it’s business afterwards.
Aphid Farms and Mummy’s
On the 19th July 2021, we recorded ants attending to an aphid farm, in this case on bramble. Note around 35 seconds into the clip you see some swollen brown / dead aphids. These are sometimes referred to as Mummy’s due to their sepia appearance in death.
Their deaths were the result of an ichneumon wasp laying her eggs within the live aphids, clearly the ants cannot always guard their charges against such an attack. The developing wasp larvae eats its way clear of the aphid which often swells and turns a light brown husky ‘Mummy’ colour.
Humans the bigger threat!
Even with the best intentions, any form of gardening can have negative impacts on wildlife. This reality was underscored when on the 10th September 2021 we accidentally / seriously disturbed, if not permanently destroyed, an ants nest which had been set up within an old compost bin. The bin was being used to store pond liner off-cuts, which we used this year to create the wetland area (see projects page).
We quickly replaced everything as best we could. Fortunately the piece of pond liner we wanted was not connected to the nest. What lasting impact our disturbance caused is unknown. As can be seen from the images below, the ants were actively moving grubs to a place of relative safety almost immediately.
New queens and eating wings!
Our final observation of the summer happened when we noticed a wingless queen ant frantically scrambling through the grass, likely looking for a suitable place to excavate a hole in which to begin her new colony. She was moving with some determination, and it proved impossible to get a decent photograph (below is the best of a bad bunch!)
The fact this queen was wingless suggests she had already mated, as once mated a queen will detach and consume her own wings as a final meal whilst she waits for the first generation of worker ants to be born and tend to her needs as she sets about establishing the new colony, ready for 2022. Interestingly this may be one of many new years she sees, as queens are known to live for 15 years or more. Their longevity is of much interest in the scientific world.