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Just who, or what is a "Formicidae Tracker" I hear you ask?
Well recently I came up with the idea of involving a dedicated group of amateur Myrmecologists, who are members of the Ant Hill World forum, from around the world. The concept of this idea is to gather as much information as possible about which ant genera, or species, that may; or can be found in a particular local area or region, within the country, state or county each individual person lives. Depending on how far they are prepared to travel to gather this data?
So that for example, the first place I ever found Formica rufa was in Haugh Wood in the English county of Herefordshire, then each person in the group will try to find what ants are within their range of ant hunting area. This can be as far or as near as they wish to go, as long as the collected data is from ant species within their own country. All information will be posted on the forum, and anything of major interest will be added to this site.
Also if anyone out there is an avid ant hunter, they are more than welcome to join in this project and help to gather information on ants found around them. You can either email me direct, or join the forum and by becoming a member you will be able to join this special group.<!-- ParagraphBodyEnd --> <!-- ParagraphEnd 410511940 --><!-- ParagraphStart 321243356 -->
Down the ages of time, from cave men to the present day, man has hunted for food. These days it is more often with a camera or a pair of binoculars that men track down animals, than with a weapon, as man rarely hunts for food any longer unless he is in the wilderness.
All of the photos which appear below were taken by my wife, when we went on an ant hunt into the local hills of the South Downs of West Sussex, England in May 2007.
I used to wonder why some people kept large trays of dead butterflies pinned under glass, when it is far nicer to watch them flutter from one flower to another in their search for nectar; but sadly this happens to be the way men think that the only way to see a rare insect up close, is to view a dead specimen. Notice on the photo below how worker ants, who are tiny compared to the size of my hand, have no hesitation about attacking, what to them is a giant invader. The sting of such a small ant as Myrmica can be very painful, as was the case when several of these little ladies managed to find soft parts of my skin to inject their vemon into. Ouch!!
Ant hunting involves catching ants alive, and not actually killing them. Although it may be fine to have 1 or 2 dead specimens for study under a microscope, it is still far more challenging and enjoyable to study living ones.
Man has always considered himself to be the hunter, but of course many other animals hunt for food. Ants are no exception to this, as every day many ant nests send out large numbers of foraging workers of all sizes and colours to hunt for food. Like lions will eat dead animal carcasses they may come across, so ants will also pick at dead mammals or birds, or carry away dead insects, as it is easier than having to fight and kill living prey; and the risk of injury to themselves is avoided, whereas they may suffer injuries from battling living prey. Ants only ever hunt for food, unlike humans who hunt for the pleasure of doing so, or to collect trophies such as animal heads or skins.
My greatest trophies are from the videos and photographs my wife and I have taken of wildlife, so unless you really want dead specimens to study, my advice is hunt with a camera and only collect what you really need, whether it be living or dead. We don't wish to endanger any of the wonderful wildlife around us, so please think before you set out to hunt; and remember, you too may be the hunted from some animal or other if it were in different circumstances!<!-- ParagraphBodyEnd --> <!-- ParagraphEnd 321243356 --><!-- ParagraphStart 97737453 -->
Okay, so you want to keep and study ants?
Well, firstly do you know what an ant looks like? Most folks do, but there is always some confusion between Ants, and their close cousins Wasps.
Though ants belong to the same order of insects as do wasps, bees and sawflies (Hymenoptera), the ants belong to the family Formicidae; whereas Wasps belong to the super-families Vespoidea and Sphecoidea repectively. Also wasps and bees may be solitary insects, where ants are principally social, having evolved into colonies of hundreds, thousands or millions of individuals living together as a tribe or mother(s) with her daughters and other close relatives (sons, sisters, nieces etc).
An ant may have similar colours to a wasp, and may even possess a sting; but here the simularity ends, for wasp colonies (except perhaps in warmer climates from us) dies out after 1 season lasting 6 or 7 months; whereas an ant colony can survive for many years, and in principal could last forever if it can replace the fertile queen(s) or mothers of the colony every so often!
All ants are insects, which means they all possess 6 legs. By now, even the most novice of us will know what the outward appearance of an ant is, with a head onto which are attached 2 antennae, 2 compound eyes, the jaws and mouthparts.
The head is followed by a middle segment or Thorax which is the neck and chest. Then comes a thin segment called the Petiole, which may have 1 or 2 segments to it, rarely more.
The final part of any ant is the abdomen or Gaster.
So basically an ant looks something like} >oO-O with 6 legs under it
How do you hunt ants?
Right, let's assume for now that we all know what an ant is; and more importantly, what they look like. It is no use going out on a cold, wet day in December with a load of collecting jars if you live in Britain or Canada say, as the chances of finding an active ant colony are virtually nil at this time of year!
What I tend to do is, firstly try to decide what species I wish to collect; and then wait until the Spring when it is warm and dry, but not too hot. April and May are good months for this.
My favourite method is what is best termed as "Stone Lifting", where you find a suitable chunk of rock or stone (old quarries or dry stone walls are good for this) and turn over the stone.
A lot of the time you'll only find worms, ground beetles or even on the odd occasion a snake or lizard; but where ants are nesting in the area you will find many nesting under flat stones.
Rather than destroy or decimate the nest, I usually look for queens under the rock or just on the soil surface, as they do like to warm themselves in the mild heat of the springtime sunshine.
Let's say it is a nest of Myrmca rubra I have found, and that it contains a total number of 7 queens and approximately 300 workers.
Take no more than 3 queens maximum is my advice, as to remove more may endanger the continued life of the colony; and that is not the idea, as you want this colony to go on producing more future queens and continue to exist.
Again with workers, take away no more than 70, as although your captive colony can function well with a lesser number of ants, the wild colony will need more workers for it to survive.
Let's say you are out in the countryside on a warm April day. The sun is shining, birds are singing and bees are buzzing around your head.
You see a single foraging ant on the ground, so you watch it for awhile. You then discover more ants going back and forth along a trail. Trying to decide on where their nest is, you follow the line of ants. It's a bit like looking for the bath plug at the end of the chain. If you go one way, the line of ants gets less; but the other way and you find it thickens out into many more workers. It is in this area that you will most likely locate their nest.
Not all nests are accessible, as ants may use natural defences such as bramble bushes or thickets of vegetation to protect their nests. Nests under stones are generally the easiest to inspect, and the large mounds that wood ant species build are also easy to find. Although such mounds are heavily defended by thousands of workers, and while 1 or 2 ants are no major threat, many hundreds of angry ants will soon put the bravest ant hunter to flight, even one as experienced as myself.
No matter how well you protect yourself, you will get stung or bitten once you interfere with an ant nest; as you would attack an invader to your own home to try to stop them. So the ants will give their lives in defence of their queen and home.
You will not always find ant nests, but please remember this. BE CONSIDERATE WHEN YOU DO FIND ONE....... as it may have taken them many years to build a rather complicated structure of tunnels and chambers, and you could destroy this in a matter of minutes if you dig into it like a bull in a china shop.
My advice here is, if you cannot take ants away without causing any harm to the nest....... LEAVE IT ALONE; and try looking somewhere else for the ants you want.
I can assure you that you will find what you seek, as I have often walked away from a dozen nests until I eventually found the one which gave me a nice colony to take home!
Never despair, as Ant Hunting involves a lot of patience, some skill and a great deal of self control.
For those of you who may wonder why sometimes you find much larger larvae or pupae inside an ant nest, my wife recently took these photos in June 2007. You will observe that there are a lot of very large larvae and pupae in this nest of the species Lasius niger, and this occurs each year in our garden, as we are surrounded by 7 huge nesting colonies of these ants.
The much larger pupae and larvae are those of new queens, and later on during mid July into early August, vast numbers of alate (winged) male and female ants head off on their nuptial mating flights; although many of these sadly end as a meal for birds, spiders, fish and even other ants. The predation rate can be as high as 97%, but enough mated queens live to ensure the survival of the species, as millions fly each year, so the loss of so many helps control the ant population in any given area.
Here you can clearly see the difference in size between 'queen' pupae and those of the much smaller males and workers!
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Many novice ant hunters get rather confused when they first encounter their first few ant colonies, as they don't know the difference between worker ants and the much queen ants. Well generally the queens of most ant species are greatly larger in size to their workers, although this is not always the case, as some queens may be of a similar size to their workers; but a general rule of thumb does mean that the vast majority of queen ants are larger when compared to the other castes in a colony/nest of ants. Usually the gaster (abdomen) of a queen ant is much larger, and the thorax is more pronounced where the wing muscles have been which power the wings for the mating flight, although again some species never fly and mate within the nest.
My wife was out walking our little Lhasa Apso dog Bobby, when she happened to look down to see what appeared to be a little black beetle running along the path by her feet; but on closer inspection it turned out to be a newly mated Lasius niger queen. Several winged queens and males were also the path. Collecting this queen, my wife decided to take a few photos of her. So here is a close up picture to show what a queen ant of the Lasius genus looks like, and most other queens belonging to other species would look very much like this for those who may wonder what a queen ant really looks like!
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Many of you will have heard the word " Alate " in relation to ant mating flights; but most people, myself included, prefer to call an ant with wings a " Winged Ant ", as the term describes an Alate very accurately.
Winged ants are the young princesses, later to be the queens of an ant colony; and the males, who have only one task in life. That is to mate with the females, and then they die shortly afterwards. Male ants are smaller than their female counterparts, and in the case of Lasius species ( as in these photos ) the male is tiny in comparison.
This set of pictures shows a Lasius niger nest in my own garden. The large winged ants are the new queens, while any smaller ones are males. The photos also show the vast number of cocooned pupae, which indicates that the particular queen in this nest must be well fed and is therefore, highly productive. If you look carefully in the centre of the last photo, you can just see 2 newly eclosed ants, as they are a pale grey when compared to the dull black of their older sisters !
Perhaps the best should be saved for the last; but in this case, Jenny has taken such a lovely photo of alate queens setting out on their mating flight, that it just had to be put on first. It shows beautiful detail of the wings, that can carry these queens for quite long distances, before they find a suitable nesting site to make their new home in !
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My wife likes to take her camera along whenever we go for a long walk in the local countryside, just in case we come across anything of interest. April 20th, 2005 we trotted off into our local hills, and my wife Jenny decided to check out some bits of flint as you can often find insects and slow worms under such stones.
After a few failed attempts at finding anything at all, she turned over one bit of stone only to find a large nesting colony of Lasius flavus; but what was even more amazing was that nesting under the very same stone we found a colony of Myrmica rubra, and both ant species were sharing the same nest site in perfect harmony and made no attempt to attack each other, but totally ignored each others workers or touched them gently with their antennae and showed no hostile intentions.
You can imagine our amazement and joy finding these 2 species living together, in what appeared to be a completely peaceful co-existence, as neither colony attacked the workers of the other, despite their incursions into each others territory. Below are the photos my wife took of this unusual nest and its inhabitants.
Lasius flavus & M. rubra with larvae.
Both species sharing the same stone.
Myrmica rubra with lots of healthy larvae.
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Here are some photos of myself on an ant hunting expedition up in the South Downs of merry old England. This is an area known as "The Trundle" and is very close to the famous horse racing course of Goodwood.
The first photo shows me looking for ant nests, while the 2nd shows me with a captured colony of Myrmica rubra. The 3rd photo is the actual stone under which the colony was found, as this piece of flint served as a roof over the nest. All photos were taken by my wife, who often accompanies me on such escapades into the wilds on my search for ants.
Photo 1} Ant Hunting Begins.
Photo 2} Ants are found.
Photo 3} The Flintstone Nest Roof.