A few weeks ago The Ranger was visiting Parkhurst Forest to inspect the excellent squirrel hide there when he came across one of the many sites where, later in the summer, Britain’s largest ants, the wood ants (Formica rufa) build their remarkable fortresses out of pine needles, tiny twigs and sticks. Much to his surprise he discovered that, even in the middle of March, the ants were already at work, starting to build their palace. A few hardy souls were already carrying vegetation to rebuild the pile.
This worker holds a pine needle in her strong jaws – one of many that will soon make up the nest. It was whilst the Ranger’s companion was taking this first picture that the observers suddenly became aware of something else that was going on – just a few centimetres away was a seething mass of ants, basking in some early springtime sunshine.
The workers were out gathering heat for the nest – after a chilly winter they need all the warmth they can to get going and start building. The sun on their dark bodies must warm them up significantly. Certainly it seemed to have worked with these ants – they were very lively, as this close-up shows:
Amazingly, within a few minutes of taking these pictures, in contrast to the warm springtime sun a hailstorm hit the forest and the photographers ran for cover under the nearby trees. The ants vanished – not surprising, as a hit from one of those hailstones would undoubtedly have done some damage even to these seemingly invincible creatures. No doubt within a few hours they were back on top, patiently dragging pine needles towards their nest, getting ready for a summer of fighting off the ants next door.