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An extraordinary sound journey: A year in the life of wood ant nests.  
Monday 31 March - Friday 4 April 2003 3.45-4.00pm

This is a radio series perhaps unlike anything you have listened to before! Recorded over a year, the series charts the fascinating and bizarre lives of two colonies of wood ants; one in a pine forest and the other in a deciduous woodland in Northumberland. Using specially designed microphones, we eavesdrop on the private and noisy activities of the ants; we join the soldiers, workers, nurses and guards within nests, following them as they march through the forest on a highway of ant trails, and we are with them when the nest is attacked by badgers, damaged by mountain bikes, and threatened by tree harvesters, dogs, ferocious storms and predatory birds.

Pine forest, Northumberland, wood ant nest left foreground
A Northumberland Pine Forest:
Wood ant mound just visible left foreground

As well as eavesdropping on life within the wood ant nests, we also follow the changing sondscape of the forest as a rich and evocative soundtrack based on location recordings made throughout the year by wildlife sound recordist Chris Watson, provides a backdrop to the life of the ants.

The series is introduced by Peter France. "The Operator" (Susan Osman) guides us round this hitherto secret world, and assisting her are Professor Nigel Franks and Jay Denny (based at University of Bristol), and naturalist, Harry Green.

Programme 1. Early Spring

Its early spring, and as the air temperature rises, activityat the base of a mature pine is stimulated the wood ants are emerging from hibernation. We travel inside the nest eavesdrop on the occupants and learn about the nest's construction and location. As the ants emerge from the nest, they move out on the trunk trails which radiate through the forest in search of food. But the ants are not the only ones on the move. In the distance, a grappling harvester, used to fell the tall pine trees, is approaching the ant nest. Meanwhile, a worker ant finds a beetle carcass that's too big for it to carryback to the nest alone, so itengages theassistance of other workers. Eventually, the forgaing antsreturn safely to the nest with their hoard, but the sounds of the approaching harvester echomenacingly through the forest.

Listen again  Listen again to Programme 1
Wildlife sound recordist, Chris Watson prepares to insert microphone into ant nest
Wildlife sound recordist Chris Watson prepares to insert a microphone into the wood ant nest

Programme 2.  Late Spring
Its late spring and the wood ants are very active; foraging for food, maintaining and repairing their nest and fighting over territorial boundaries. We join the ants on their forgaing activities and discover how they farm aphids. Back at the nest, we learn how they regulate the nest temperature and care for the egg brood. Spring is a busy time for the wood ants, but they must take care; danger is never far away; and all the while, the grappling harvester is steadily working its way through the forest, getting closer to the nest.

Listen again  Listen again to Programme 2
Wildlife sound recordist Chris Watson inserts microphone into wood ant nest and listens
Wildlife sound recordist Chris Watson inserts a microphone into the nest and listens for the sounds of the ants 

Programme 3. Early Summer
Its early summer, and as well as the ants, there are mountain bikes moving through the forest. The cyclists can disrupt the ant trails and occasionally run over or through an ant nest. Of greater threat though to the ant nest are the grappling harvesters; these move through the forest felling trees which may fall on the nest. The tree clearance also reduces the habitat suitable for the wood ants. Sparrowhawks are active at this time of year too, hunting for the chicks.
Then, one evening in May, when the temperature and humidity are just right; the virgin females embark on their ritual mating flight; when females take to the air and mate. After mating, the females start a new colony; either in their natal nest or they initiate a colony elsewhere. Some ants invade the nests of other colonies and enslave the workers as their own. Whilst the newly mated queens are establishing their colonies, a badger emerges from his burrow in search of  food. His prowls through the forest lead him to the wood ant nest; its a fast food restaurant for the badger; a mouthful of wood ant pupae making a tasty midnight snack!

Listen again  Listen again to Programme 3
Wood ants moving over the microphone on the outside of the nest
Wood ants moving over the microphone on exterior of nest (thatch)

Programme 4.  Late Summer
Late summer and inside the nest, the ants are very active; caring for the eggs, larvae and young pupae. Outside the nest, the foraging ants certainly have their work cut out, as they search for food for the growing population back in the nest. By following the trails, we discover how the ants use pheremones to maintain cohesion of the trails. As summer fades, the first autumn breezes sweep through the forest. Within the nest, the ants close the ventilation hatches and secure the nest,as far as possible, against wind damage. 

Listen again  Listen again to Programme 4
Wood ant nests can reach as high as a man's shoulders
Wood ant nests can reach as high as a man's shoulders: great brooding statues on the edge of the forest.

Programme 5. Autumn and Winter
In the last programme in the series, we follow the ants as autumn arrives, then winter and finally spring again. During the winter, the ants hibernate, but not before they have secured their nests against ferocious autumn gales, and the blustery snows of winter. In autumn and winter, the pine forest is a quieter place; but for the sounds of owls, the haunting cries of vixen and the scrabbling of squirrels as they race after each other on their mating chases round the trees. Winter brings snow. A well insulated ant nest is not damaged by snow; in fact so much heat can be generated within the mound that its here that the snow melts first! But whilst, snow may not threaten the survival of the wood ants: man does .. and the ominous sounds of the grapple harvester get closer and closer ...

Listen again  Listen again to Programme 5

Additional Sources of Information

Ants, by Ray North (World Wildlife Series, ISBN 1873580258)
Ants of the British Isles, by GJ Skinner (Shire Natural History, ISBN 0852638965)
Ants, by GJ Skinner and GW Allen (Richmond Publishing, ISBN 0855463048)
Behavioural Ecology of Ants, by J Sudd (Kluwer, ISBN 0216922461)
Journey to the Ants, by B Holldobler, EO Wilson (Harvard University Press, ISBN 0674485262)
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