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Red Ants

Scientific Name: (Myrmica rubra group of species )


picture of a Red Ant

Note the two segments of the 'waist' or pedicel and the bend in the antennae which are a feature of Red Ants.

Ants belong to a small section in the order Hymenoptera, including Bees and Wasps, which have an ovipositer that has evolved as a sting; in some species of ant the sting is absent or has been adapted to squirt instead of inject the irritant - formic acid. Another feature of this section is that they are social creatures, living in colonies with different roles for their members, ie. workers, drones and queens. There are no solitary ant species as there are for Bees, the whole colony lives as an organism where individual survival is not as important as the group and individuals will sacrifice themselves to protect the rest.
They have quite a large brain in proportion to overall body size, at about 6%.
Ants are found all over the world with about 11,500 species, 47 of which are in the British Isles.
Some birds place ants in their plumage to clear out mites. For devotees of the Bush Tucker Trials, ants must be cooked before consumption to denature the venom, and it was first extracted from them in the late seventeenth century; it gets its name from the Family, Formicidae.
Before the advent of surgical stitches, Soldier ants, one of the larger tropical species, were used to bind wounds - the flesh was realigned together, the ant was held close to it and it bit with its strong jaws, then the head was cut off leaving the 'stitch' in place.

The Red Ant is one of the commonest and there are eight species of them here - the one pictured above is probably Myrmica ruginodis. Colonies of 100 to 300 can be found under stones and paving or sometimes rotting tree trunks, in most gardens. Their sting is the piercing type and can be painful.

When they find a food source they lay a trail of pheromone back to the nest and regurgitate some of the food as in indicator when they communicate with the other workers there. Red Ants prefer sweet food like nectar or the honeydew secreted by Aphids Some species of ants 'herd' the Aphids to ensure a ready supply of honeydew. Also the Myrmica species are known to tend the larvae of Blue Butterflies whose caterpillers secrete a few drops of sweet liquid which causes the ants to take them into the nest where they feed on the ant larvae.

The majority of members of a colony are sterile female workers, but some of the eggs develop into males (drones) whose only purpose is to mate with the new queens. In the late summer these males and future queens develop wings in order to mate.

picture of winged ants
These ants have grown wings, ready to take part in their mating ritual, sometimes called the "marriage flight".

The males die after the ordeal or are killed if they attempt to return to the nest, but the fertilised young queens bite off their wings and find a site to start a new colony. They dig out a nest and settle in for the winter. The eggs hatch into larvae the following year, tended by the new queen and these become mostly workers. Their job is to tend the larvae of subsequent batches of eggs, feeding them and the queen on regurgitated food.

picture of a disturbed red ant nest

If the nest is disturbed the workers rush around clutching larvae carrying them to safety.

The queen dies after up to 15 years of a productive life, and the colony dies out.


Ants are not usually a problem and can live quite happily in the garden without causing too much damage. They can make mounds of soil as they excavate their nest, but this can be brushed away. The fine dry soil at the entrance gives their presence away when seeking out the nest for destruction. If disturbed they will defend their territory and give some stings, but usually this is just a mild irritation. If they are giving you aggravation there are many ways to discourage or remove them. Here are a few:-
Do not leave uncovered food around where it will attract them, especially if eating outdoors. Locate the entrance of a nest and place an upturned pot over it - use a clay pot which will not be blown away. An empty tin can will work as well. After a few days the ants will have migrated to the surface with their white larvae and they can be swept up. They make a nice feast for chickens or on the bird-table. Place the legs of an outdoor table in containers of water to act as a moat which the ants cannot cross. Boric acid is toxic to ants and many other insects as it attacks their nervous system and causes dehydration so a 50:50 mixture with icing sugar makes a bait which will be taken to the nest where it should destroy the colony. It is an ingredient in many commercial products and has been used for centuries as an insecticide, a flame retardant, an antiseptic and in food preservation, so it is relatively non-toxic to humans and their environment. The nest can be located by following the returning ants, or quite often it is found while working in the garden when a stone is turned over.
They do not like peppermint so place it where you don't want them to go, or at their nest. Peppermint extract in water can be applied to surfaces. If an ant is squashed clean the spot well as the corpse will release pheromones which will attract others. It is best to use a vacuum cleaner to remove unwanted ants. If they are coming into the house, a circle of petroleum jelly around the entry point will halt their journey, and if bait is placed within the circle they will take it back to the nest. Another deterrent is ground cinnamon which can be sprinkled around to keep them out. Instant coffee placed at the entrance of a nest and repeated a few times will see them off. Diatomaceous Earth could be described as a biological control although the active agent is no longer alive since it is the fossilised remains of diatoms - tiny algae. It works by sticking to the exoskeleton of the ant by electrostatic attraction and abrades it as it moves around resulting in holes which lead to dehydration and death. It is applied as a fine powder to paths and around nest openings. In the Southern states of USA trials have been carried out on a biological control for the non-native Red Fire Ant (Solenopsis invicta) which was accidently introduced from South America. A species of fly called Pseudacteon curvatus, also native to South America, decapitates the ant then lays its eggs in the cavity. It also attacks native ants, but early results are showing that it seems to prefer S. invicta. Grits, (a cereal favoured in the Southern States of USA, with an acquired taste - I'm told), causes the ant to swell up and die. Not readily available here, grits are prepared by soaking ground maize in an alkaline solution like bicarbonate of soda. Perhaps you could try porridge instead! There is now a biological control which uses a nematode Steinernema feltiae to deter the ants. The ants do not like the nematodes near their nests and move away. The soil must be above 10°C for the nematodes to survive after they have been watered onto the affected area. A new control is available which contains a number of species which kills a collection of pests in their larval stage, but it has to be applied throughout the season so works out quite expensive. There are a number of branded products available to destroy them or act as a repellent.

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