Ants harnessed with tiny radio receivers in new study

University of York launch a study into hairy wood ants using tiny radio receivers to improve habitat.

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by Alice Murray

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Image: Hairy wood ant being fitted with radio receiver © Changing Views

The University of York has started the world’s first experiment into hairy wood ant communication and travel. Using tiny radio receivers fitted to over one thousand ants, the study will focus on improving the habitat for the threatened species.

The project, taking place over three years, will be based on the National Trust’s Longshaw Estate in Derbyshire. The site is home to over 1,000 hairy wood ant nests, of which there are around 50 million worker ants.

The ants will be fitted with the one millimetre radio device within a few seconds of being caught. This will not interfere with, nor harm the ants, as they are the size of an adult thumbnail.

Researchers will examine the communication inside the colonies network of nests and highways, as well as with the multiple ant queens.

The findings will be used by the staff at the National Trust’s Longshaw estate as a way of understanding how to help manage the woodland for the species.

The hairy wood ant depends on stroking sap-sucking aphids to release honeydew to feed their young and in return protect them. The aphids favour oak, birch and pine trees.

Samuel Ellis, the biologist from the University of York, who will be carrying out the research, said: “The radio receivers act like a barcode to mark out each individual ant. A single ant is not particularly clever but is part of an elaborate system that is clearly performing very effectively at Longshaw.”

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Chris Millner, National Trust Area Ranger at Longshaw, said: “We will be carrying out some forestry work over the next few years, removing lots of conifer trees from modern plantations which will create a larger area of wood pasture, ideal for the ants to move in to.”