Identification

Ants are social insects and the different castes of ants within a nest vary in appearance. Most abundant are the worker ants, which are infertile females. Worker ants are wingless and are smaller than the males and fertile females (queen ants). Ants move rapidly as they search for food or nesting materials. They may be black, reddish brown or yellowish brown. Males and fertile females have wings, although once a young queen has gone on a mating flight and has successfully mated, she bites off her wings. The larger size and the presence of wing stumps enables a queen to be distinguished from a worker ant.

The larvae, which are reared inside the ant nest, are small white grubs. In some ant species, the fully fed larvae pupate inside silk cocoons, while others have exposed pupae. When an ant nest is disturbed, worker ants will carry the larvae and pupae to a safer place. The brownish white silk cocoons are often mistakenly referred to as ant eggs; the real eggs are barely visible to the naked eye.

Size

Worker ants are 2-5mm long in most species but in the wood ant (Formica rufa) they are about 10mm long. Queen ants are 8-15mm long and males are 5-12mm.

Distribution

Ants occur throughout Britain and the more common species can be abundant.

Status

There are 42 species of ant in Britain, some are found throughout Britain, some have a very restricted distribution.

Habitat preference

Warm, sunny places in gardens, grassland, woodland rides and heathland. Nests are often found under stones or logs, or they may form raised heaps of soil and vegetation.

Role in the garden

Forager ants collect small invertebrate animals, including other ants, which they take back to their nests as food for the larvae and adult ants in the nests. They also collect the sugary excrement, called honeydew, that is produced by aphids and some other sap-sucking insects. Worker ants are an important part of the diet of green woodpeckers; swallows, house martins and swifts feast on male and female winged ants when they emerge en masse to go on their mating flights on warm humid days in summer.