Tags to shed light on northern hairy ants' movements

Northern hairy wood ants are a protected species in the UK

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Researchers are planning to fit tiny tags to a protected species of ant in order to gain an insight into the insects' behaviour.

A team from the University of York will fit the devices to 1,000 northern hairy ants - the UK's largest ant species.

Although ants have been tagged in laboratories before, the project will be the first to attempt to track the movement of the creatures in the wild.

The project will take place on the National Trust's Longshaw Estate.

The site in Derbyshire is home to more than 1,000 nests and and estimate 50 million worker hairy ants.

Multiple nests

Sam Ellis, from the University of York, said the study would help answer questions about how the colony of ants organise themselves.

Hairy giants

Hairy wood ant (Formica lugubris) (c) Antweb
  • The wood ant is the largest native ant species in Britain, with workers measuring up to 1cm
  • Hairy wood ants (Formica lugubris) are a northern species in the UK, but can be found as far south as mid-Wales
  • They live in mound-shaped nests made of leaves and twigs, which are designed to trap heat
  • The ants can defend themselves from predators by spraying formic acid, a smelly acidic substance that can blister the skin
  • Some birds, such as jays and woodpeckers, use the defensive spraying to their advantage by using the acid as a cleansing agent to rid themselves of parasites

"The ants have this behaviour where one colony is spread among multiple nests," he explained.

"This behaviour is really interesting because there are some places where they exhibit this behaviour, yet in other places within Europe they do not do this.

"It is unknown how why they maintain this multiple nesting."

He added that the data gathered from tagging the ants would help shape land management projects.

"With this information, land managers will be better equipped to ensure they do not destroy a colony accidentally by cutting down a tree used by the insects to source food or damaging an area used by the ants," he told BBC News.

The tags, which measure 1.0mm by 1.6mm, will act like a barcode, allowing the researchers to track the movements of the tagged insects.

"It allows you to build up a picture of how each individual ant behaves, and this builds up to make the colony-wide behaviour," Mr Ellis told BBC News.

"You stick all the tags on, and then you come back the next day.

The scanner is literally like a barcode reader, so you position yourself on one of the trails between the nests, and as the ants run past, you scan it to see which ant it is."

Jenny Gerrans, the learning officer for the National Trust at Longshaw Estate, said that the research would help shape the trust's conservation work that was being carried out at the property.

"We are doing some tree removal and felling over the next few years," she told BBC News.

"As part of that, we will be mapping the ants' nests, and we will be able to give the information from this study to the contractors that will be carrying out the work.

"They will then be able to make sure that they do not ruin the tracks or paths that the ants use."

Wood ants are a group of six closely related species found across the forests of Europe. Within the UK, there are three species. One which is found in the north of Scotland; the northern hairy ant, which is found in southern Scotland and northern England, and there is another species found in southern England.

"They are the dominant invertebrate predator, so they are not eaten by any other invertebrate - although they are eaten by woodpeckers and sometimes badgers," Mr Ellis explained.

He added that trees - such as oak, birch, pine and larch - played an important role in the ants ecology.

"Their main food, about 60-80%, comes from aphids. They have farms, literally like we have farms, of aphids up in the trees. So they protect the aphids," he said.

"The aphids drink tree sap, and as this is very rich in sugar, they cannot process it all so they [dump] the excess sugar.

"The ants collect this sugary water and take it back to the nests."

The tagging is set to get underway during the summer of 2013.

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