The southern wood ant (Formica rufa) is one of the smaller creatures of the Blean, but one of the largest species of ants in the UK. They can be found almost everywhere in the Blean. Their distinctive nests are made up of bits of twigs, leaves and grass, which can get to over one metre tall, even though some of the nest goes underground. A nest can be quite alarming when looked at closely, as the thousands of ants they house present a heaving mass of activity.
The nest is inhabited all year round, and the ants regulate the temperature inside by ensuring that the slope of the nest is angled to get the most sun, and by opening and closing numerous holes around the nest to ventilate or keep the heat in. They can also bring heat into the nest by sunbathing in large numbers and bringing this stored body heat into the nest.
The colony is made up of soldiers, workers, nurses and guards, and around May, when the temperature and humidity are just right, the virgin females take to the air to mate with winged males. These mated queens then start a new colony, either in their birth nest or by starting a colony elsewhere. Some ants invade the nests of other colonies and enslave their workers.
These tiny creatures are not everyone’s favourite, but they do contribute a lot to a healthy woodland. They feed on other small insects and larvae, many of which are considered forest pests, plus they are the food for other distinctive woodland animals such as woodpeckers.