En­ter the em­pire of the wood ant

Ca­pa­ble of squirt­ing formic acid dis­tances up to 12 times its body length, the wood ant’s strictly or­dered world and thrifty ef­fi­ciency is cel­e­brated in the Bi­ble and tales of to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism, ob­serves a spell­bound

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - David Pro­fumo

David Pro­fumo ad­mires the wood ant’s strictly or­dered world and its abil­ity to shoot formic acid to de­fend it­self

UN­LESS you’re a yaf­fle or a pan­golin, the prospect of hav­ing ants in the neigh­bour­hood is prob­a­bly un­wel­come, but, since the time of Plato, these ad­vanced in­sects have in­trigued hu­mans with their in­dus­tri­ous colo­nial ac­tiv­ity.

Myrme­col­o­gists have es­ti­mated the global ant pop­u­la­tion to be some 10,000 tril­lion. How­ever, here in Bri­tain, we have just 36 na­tive species, one of the fore­most be­ing that long-legged for­ager the south­ern wood ant (Formica rufa), also known as my­roo, mer­gan or em­met (a mis­chievous Cor­nish nick­name for sea­sonal tourists).

Wide­spread through suitable broadleaf and pine forests, they’re just emerg­ing in March from hi­ber­na­tion and are now busily re­fur­bish­ing their dis­tinc­tive dome-shaped nests, which give off a uri­nous, am­mo­niac reek (thus the other an­cient so­bri­quet of ‘pis-mire’).

Red and black­ish-brown, the wood ant pos­sesses rel­a­tively good eye­sight and sharp mandibles. It can be fairly ag­gres­sive in de­fence of its home range, but has no sting. How­ever, it can squirt con­cen­trated formic acid dis­tances 12 times its body length that’s strong enough to turn a for­getme-not pink and can cause pus­tu­la­tions—shake­speare’s Hot­spur is ‘net­tled and stung with pis­mires’.

This poi­son is said to smell like salt-and-vine­gar crisps—scan­di­na­vian bak­ers oc­ca­sion­ally use it to flavour cake ic­ing and the lam­i­nated plas­tic Formica is chem­i­cally re­lated.

Al­though there is a hardy Scot­tish cousin—aptly, F. lugubris, which prefers the shade—rufa colonies seek out sun­shine and their anty tumps (which can be 5ft tall and har­bour a quar­ter of a mil­lion in­di­vid­u­als) act as both um­brella and oven, be­ing thatched with weath­er­proof­ing pine nee­dles and an­gled east-west to max­imise thermo-reg­u­la­tion from any avail­able sun­light.

Less ge­o­met­ri­cally pre­cise than bee struc­tures, they com­prise a net­work of carved gal­leries and stor­age tun­nels, usu­ally in­clud­ing a mid­den and a morgue, through which the work­ers busily formi­cate—you can some­times hear a whis­per­ing sound as they seethe un­der their roof.

Ants have long been reck­oned as an indi­ca­tor species of healthy wood­land—hitler pro­tected them for the ben­e­fit of the Third Re­ich’s tim­ber.

Re­quir­ing a su­gar rush, they are often un­in­vited guests at pic­nics— al­though cu­cum­ber and cof­fee act as nat­u­ral de­ter­rents. Wood ants con­sume many pests such as bee­tles, midges and moths and have evolved a sys­tem of ‘milk­ing’ aphids, which process sap into hon­ey­dew—a sub­stance rich in sug­ars and hor­mones that they ex­ude when pal­pated by the ant. Woody Allen’s icon­o­clas­tic char­ac­ter Z (from the 1998 an­i­mated film

Antz) com­plains: ‘Call me crazy, but I have a thing about drink­ing from the anus of an­other crea­ture.’ A siz­able colony can col­lect hun­dreds of pounds of hon­ey­dew dur­ing the year.

Un­like some species, rufa is largely monog­y­nous and does not tol­er­ate mul­ti­ple queens. Some spe­cial­ists re­gard colonies as a form of ‘su­per­or­gan­ism’ that func­tions through swarm in­tel­li­gence, with the work­ers some­how co-oper­at­ing, com­mu­ni­cat­ing via an­ten­nae and mu­tual feed­ing, yet with no over­all lead­er­ship (the queen spends much of her time asleep and is ef­fec­tively an egg fac­tory).

The ma­jor­ity of the colony con­sists of wing­less, in­fer­tile fe­male work­ers named min­ims—per­haps that should be maiden ants?—that per­form ded­i­cated du­ties and are prodi­giously strong (they can lift 100 times their own weight). Like Homer’s Myr­mi­don war­riors, they at­tack for­ag­ing predators such as badgers and green wood­peck­ers and re­pel in­va­sions from other, can­ni­bal­is­tic ant species.

On muggy days in June, the colony’s ‘sex­u­als’—winged males and fe­males—em­bark on a nup­tial flight. The males often per­ish in cop­ula, but the queen can store a life­time’s worth of sperm from this sin­gle ex­trav­a­ganza. Once fe­cun­dated, she may ei­ther es­tab­lish a new colony from scratch, re­turn home and bor­row ex­ist­ing work­ers to form a satel­lite nearby or else in­dulge in so­cial par­a­sitism whereby an­other species’ colony is an­nexed and its work­ers press-ganged into rais­ing her brood—the va­ri­ety F. fusca, once chill­ingly dubbed the Ne­gro ant, is often tar­geted for such en­slave­ment.

The grubs are dili­gently fed by work­ers, their diet dic­tat­ing their fu­ture role in the caste sys­tem when they emerge from the pu­pal stage as adults.

Ants have fea­tured widely in in­sect fa­bles, in which tra­di­tional moralis­ers tend to em­pha­sise their thrift and in­dus­try—‘go to the ant,’ in­structs the Old Tes­ta­ment and Milton ap­proves ‘the par­si­mo­nious em­met’. In the mod­ern pe­riod, how­ever, formic metaphors have be­come more alarm­ing—a re­flec­tion of the teem­ing au­to­matic life­style of cities and even of to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism. From H. G. Wells’s pre­scient Em­pire

of the Ants, via T. H. White’s sin­is­ter formic realm in The Sword and the

Stone, to the thinly dis­guised fear of Com­mu­nist in­va­sion in sev­eral Cold War films, the su­per-ef­fi­ciency of the ant has ac­quired omi­nous un­der­tones.

As that glam­orous, bipo­lar lyri­cist Adam Ant sum­marised it: ‘Don’t tread on the ant/he’s done noth­ing to you/there may come a day/when he’s tread­ing on you!’

‘Like Homer’s Myr­mi­don war­riors, they at­tack for­ag­ing predators such as badgers

Below: It’s tough be­ing the mid­dle child of 250,000: from Shake­speare to Woody Allen, ants have long been a sta­ple of lit­er­a­ture, sig­ni­fy­ing fru­gal­ity and in­dus­try, as well as be­ing used as an omi­nous metaphor for Com­mu­nism. Right: Wood ants spray formic acid in de­fence

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