Red wood ants at The Kymin

The Kymin is home to one of Britain’s rarest and largest ants, the red wood ant. Their impressive nests can be found across our land here and are fascinating to watch.

Most of us don’t notice when a common little ant stumbles across our feet, but red wood ants are hard to miss, with the queens measuring about 12mm long.

An endangered species

Red wood ants are on the Red Data List of endangered species in Wales. They’re under threat from changes in agriculture and woodland management.

Nearly all the nests at The Kymin are on the edge of the bowling green in the rockery and below the Round House in the meadow. Although the nests do move year on year, they tend to stay in the same general areas.

We carry out a survey of the red wood ants every five years to monitor the condition and extent of the population.

A queendom

Red wood ant queens can live for more than 15-years, whilst the workers only live for a year or so, and the males are very short-lived, dying after they mate with the queens in spring.

The queen is the only ant to lay eggs that are reared to adulthood. The workers are all female and don’t reproduce because they’re not fully developed. But they do occasionally lay eggs to use as food.

As the name implies, they do all the work in the colony, maintaining the nest and tending to the queen and her brood.

The males don’t work as their sole purpose is to mate with the queen.

Food for thought

The red wood ants get much of their food from aphids, ‘milking’ them by gently stroking them to release droplets of honeydew – a food rich in sugars, acids, salts and vitamins.

This is the aphids’ waste product, a result of having to take in a lot of tree sap to get the protein they need. In return for the honeydew, the ants protect the aphids’ precious sugar source from predators and competing sap-loving insects.

So next time you’re at The Kymin, spend a few minutes watching these ingenious insects and marvel at their extraordinary nests.