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
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