Wednesday, May 12, 2021
HomeNewsNotes from the Sticks: For every human, a million ants

Notes from the Sticks: For every human, a million ants

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THIS week saw I ants scurrying about outside the front of the house for the first time this year.

I find it quite hard to love ants, but like everything else in nature they are fascinating.

As ever when I write these pieces I take a guess about how many species of a certain animal or plant there are and am always astonished at how far out I am. I thought there might be four or five types of ant in Britain but there are more than 50. Most are found in the south because they prefer warmer climates. Thus there aren’t any in Iceland, for example. Lancashire, where we live, is at the northern end of the range of ants, and we have five species, shown on this page. https://www.lancswt.org.uk/wildlife-explorer/invertebrates/ants  There are 13,000 species throughout the world and it is estimated that there are between four and ten quadrillion of them in total, more than a million for every person. Someone has estimated that they weigh more than all the human population. So if you really dislike them, it’s tough.

Since there are only a few species locally it was quite easy to identify ours as black garden ants or common black ants, Lasius niger.

They are the most common in the UK. A colony usually consists of 4,000 to 7,000 individuals but can be as many as 40,000. They go dormant during the winter so I presume ours have just woken up.  

Most people are reasonably happy about ants if they stay outdoors, but ants are on a mission to find sugary food to feed their young, and can get through the tiniest gap into a house. When an ant finds food, it lays a scent (pheromone) trail back to the nest for other workers to follow. While I greatly dislike killing anything, I’m afraid I draw the line at ants in the kitchen. After trying several remedies, the one that worked best for us was a product called Antstop! bait station which is widely available. (I have nothing to with the firm.)

If you have green woodpeckers around, you are lucky because they love ants. When we lived in south London we watched one spend at least half an hour on the lawn feasting on a nest. There can’t have been a single ant left by the time it had finished. Here is a video of one in action.

One of the best zoo exhibits I ever saw was leaf-cutter ants, which sadly don’t live wild in this country. They saw off bits of leaves and carry them home to their nest. The leaves are then colonised by a fungus which the ants can eat. Here’s a video.

Finally, no piece about ants would be complete without army ants which overwhelm anything in their path. This video will not be to everyone’s taste so it is behind this link. However it does make the problem of a few garden ants on your worktop seem pretty mild.

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I passed this donkey in a field a few days ago. I have heard that they are not happy on their own and sure enough this one had a companion horse, and a cow. It was quite friendly and to get close put its head over a barbed wire fence – which it didn’t even seem to notice. I have seen cows scratching themselves on barbed wire, which shows how tough their hides are.

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This week’s wild flower is lady’s smock, also called cuckoo flower (Cardamine pratensis) which I found the other day by the roadside just round the corner from our house. The spent daffodils should give an idea of the scale.

Here is a close-up:

Not being a wild flower expert I had to look this up, but my book confused me by listing the flowers as white. Another source says they are lilac. To me they are pink, so I assume they come in all three shades. Apparently in Devon a double form is common, which must be very pretty.

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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