ACID-SPRAYING giant ants with a brutal bite sound like the stuff of horror movies.
But at Burnham Beeches these formidable predators are actively encouraged and cared for, so they can’t be as terrifying as they sound.
Unwary visitors to the stunning Buckinghamshire nature reserve might not feel quite as warmly disposed to the mound-building woodland forager, especially if they inadvertently stumble over a nest.
But this site of special scientific interest is particularly well suited to support colonies of formica rufa, with its ancient oak and beech pollards and welcoming mountains of rotting wood.
More alert ramblers won’t take long to spot the small armies eagerly transporting building materials and prey back to their nests, which might support more than 100,000 ants.
They may not be as immediately likeable as the 56 species of birds which inhabit these woods, but they are fascinating creatures, and with numbers decreasing across the country it’s important to pay more attention to the role they play in our ecosystem.
Wildlife film maker Tom Hartwell’s film for Woodlands TV takes a closer look at the life of wood ants with the help of Helen Read, conservation officer at Burnham Beeches for nearly 30 years.
Helen explains how the woodlands provide the perfect location for these insects as they use rotting wood and tree stumps for their nests, collecting pine needles, twigs and other woodland debris to create a “thatch” exterior which acts like a sun trap for their ant cities.
Farming aphids for their food, the ants are known for the strong smell they emit when disturbed, spraying a pungent formic acid to protect themselves from predators. But it has been found that some birds visit wood ants nests to be deliberately sprayed, as the acid helps to repel lice and mites.
It’s said that there are more ants roaming the world than any other creature on the planet and it’s certainly not hard to believe that on a sunny day here at Burnham, where they can be seen scurrying everywhere with their burdens – up to 100 times their own weight.
The combined weight of all the ants on earth would total more than the combined weight of all the humans. Relative to their size, ants have the largest brain of any insect, with someone calculating that an ant’s brain has more processing power than the computer controlling the first Apollo space missions.
To hear the sound of a colony in action (above), tune in to a recording made at Burnham Beeches by Mark Wilkinson in 2017 and featured on The Badger’s Eye website.
Find out more about wood ants from the website of the National Wood Ant Steering Group and more about Burnham Beeches in this short video produced by the City of London Corporation: