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Of Slaves and Masters: Wood Ants

By Taylor Wildlife, Jun 11 2018 01:00PM

You may have come across them whilst hiking through the uplands: wood ant mounds.

A Wood Ant Mound in a Scottish Forest (1)
A Wood Ant Mound in a Scottish Forest (1)

Wood ants (such as Formica aquilonia), like most other ants, have an elaborate social system with a queen at the top of the social ladder and her daughters acting as labourers. Once a year, new queens and males are produced. These both have wings, in order to move away from the maternal nest. The males will die shortly after inseminating the new queens and the new queens will attempt to start a new nest.

The way these potential new queeens start a nest is rather odd. They can't just start a nest out of nowhere, so they enter the nest of a slave ant, such as Formica fusca or Formica lemani. Upon entering the nest, the wood ant kills the slave ant queen and takes her place. The slave ant workers will take care of the wood ant's brood and will be slowly replaced by the wood ant workers since there are no new slave ants being born.

This method of starting a nest is referred to as 'temporary parasitism'.

There are also ants in Scotland; such as the blood-red wood ant (Formica sanguinea) that take it a step further and practice dulosis to top up on workers. Dulosis is the practice of raiding nests of other ant species in order to steal their pupae. These pupae are brought back to the raider's nest and the workers that will hatch from these pupae will take care of the brood and collect food.

Formica sanguinea, the blood-red wood ant.  Photo by Maico Weites.
Formica sanguinea, the blood-red wood ant. Photo by Maico Weites.

So the next time you are lucky enough to pass a wood ant mound, be reminded of the bizarre ecology of these animals and maybe look to see if you can find slave ants and parasitic ants using the same nest.


*All UK wood ants are on the IUCN Red List, and collecting data on these species can provide valuable information to conservation efforts. If you find a nest, visit https://www.buglife.org.uk/nest-quest for details on how to record it.*


(1) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wood_ant_mound.jpg

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