Hairy wood ants at Longshaw

Close view of wood ants 
We're home to lots of wood ants National Trust Images / John Millar

Hairy wood ant behaviour is being tracked by tiny radio receivers in a pioneering scientific study at the Longshaw Estate in the Peak District.

A world first

Researchers from the University of York have fitted 1,000 northern hairy wood ants with tiny radio receivers in a world first, an experiment to find out how they communicate and travel between their complex nests.
The three year research project is taking place on the Longshaw Estate in Derbyshire, a hotspot for these internationally protected ants. This unique site contains more than 1,000 nests and is home to up to 50 million worker ants.

What's happening?

Experts carefully catch the ants and attach a radio receiver of one millimetre to each one. The ants are the size of an adult thumbnail but this process does not interfere with, nor harm, them in any way.
Researchers examine how the ants communicate with each other in their colonies, which are housed in several nests connected by a network of ant highways, with multiple ant queens spread between the nests.

How it will help

The findings from the research will then be used by our staff on the Longshaw estate to manage the ancient woodland, made up of oak and birch trees, where the ants can be found.
Findings will also influence the land management of Longshaw as the ants depend on sap-sucking aphids that favour oak, birch and pine trees but northern hairy wood ant populations struggle in dense woodland of this kind.
The ants use the honeydew produced by gently stroking these aphids to feed their young and in return the ants protect the aphids.

Need for protection

The northern hairy wood ant has an international near-threatened conservation status with the two main populations in England found in the Peak District (including Longshaw) and in the North York Moors.