Red wood ants, Formica rufa, also commonly referred to as the southern wood ant or horse ant is a boreal species and one of the most abundant species in Europe. This species is native to most of Europe and north America. It has a well-established population in the United Kingdom, using conifer broad leaf woods as there habitat of preference. The are usually found in abundance where there is lots of dead wood which they use for nest building. During summer, there population blows up and they are a sight to be seen.
There nest mounds can be as high as 2 metres from ground level to 2m underground and contain approximately >300,000 in one nest structure. In areas where this species is abundant, they can alter the ecology of the woodland area, this can be seen in species such as Solonopsis Invicta as they gather seeds, leaf litter, and gather it all together in staggering quantities. They are both scavengers and predators to insects that share wooded habitat with them. Another thing to add about their nest ecology is that they play host to rare myrmecophilous arthropods. Formica rufa is one of four species of wood ant which is restricted to England and Wales. They currently have no conservation status due to lack of data recording, particularly the southern parts of England, however their population is always expanding in the south which suggests they are doing well, the only threats we can suggest would be habitat loss and urbanisation. This species is very crucial as they provide ecosystem services through nutrient cycling.
In the summer you can see them moving aphids to better feeding sites to get more honeydew produced. Queens can live for 16-20 years.
One of the most well-known traits of this species is their adapted ability to spray formic acid like many other species. I can say from personal experience, sticking my hand into one of these mounds was a very interesting and memorable experience. It was discovered and described by Linnaeus in 1761.
Their diet consists of 90% honey dew from farmed aphids while the rest is done through foraging for seeds, fruit, dead insects, sometimes decaying matter.
So, as the summer heatwave continues, these incredible insects will have a huge population boom as they thrive best in warmer conditions. They are a marvel of nature, at least that’s one of my beliefs as I am an entomologist. My main interests within the profession are wasps and bees however anything that involves social insects are rooted in my passion for the field. I remember one day, walking through the amazon rainforest, a lot of my friends were looking up and I was looking down! Two worlds that share a common interest. I wrote this article with the desire to share my interest and passion with the world of science. I also want to inspire people to be more interested in insects, big or small. I would like to say I am very ambitious and with that in mind, I will be writing my next article on the invasive species Solonopsis Invicta, the red imported fire ant and how it has been spread through the world. I chose this species as it is closer to home and I am very lucky to know where I can find them in strong numbers and good health in the wild.
If you see these nests in the wild, be respectful and mindful of their importance to our forests.
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