Ant appearing to wave

Ants are some of the trickiest subjects for my trusty lens. Apart from being very small, they are rarely still. They do however strike some appealing poses, however fleetingly.

an ant peering below

What’s down there?

In an earlier post, I mentioned my discovery that the study of ants is called myrmecology and that, according to Greek myth, Achilles’s Myrmidon warriors were said to have been created by Zeus out of an ants’ nest. The Myrmidons were known for their ferocity and loyalty. In this passage from Thoreau, a war between rival ants is described in appropriately epic terms:

One day when I went out to my wood-pile, or rather my pile of stumps, I observed two large ants, the one red, the other much larger, nearly half an inch long, and black, fiercely contending with one another. Having once got hold they never let go, but struggled and wrestled and rolled on the chips incessantly. Looking farther, I was surprised to find that the chips were covered with such combatants, that it was not a duellum, but a bellum, a war between two races of ants, the red always pitted against the black, and frequently two red ones to one black. The legions of these Myrmidons covered all the hills and vales in my wood-yard, and the ground was already strewn with the dead and dying, both red and black. It was the only battle which I have ever witnessed, the only battle-field I ever trod while the battle was raging…. On every side they were engaged in deadly combat, yet without any noise that I could hear, and human soldiers never fought so resolutely.

Henry David Thoreau

This is steep!

Perhaps it is not surprising that humans have tended to anthropomorphise ants, and also to view their apparent relentlessness, and hive mind, with some apprehension. Does anyone remember the 1954 sci-fi classic movie, Them! in which nuclear testing causes ants to mutate into giants? 1954 was a bad year for ant-PR: in The Naked Jungle, Charlton Heston has to defend a cocoa plantation against a 2-mile-wide, 20-mile-long column of army ants. Perhaps you may have seen Phase IV, the, now cult, 1974 movie in which ants evolve into the dominant life form on Earth? Other sci-fi villains, like Star Trek’s Borg, appear modelled, at least partly, on ants.

Ying yang ants

The more I photograph ants, the more fascinating I find them. But I am glad they are small.

The shadows now so long do grow,
The brambles like tall cedars show,
Molehills seem mountains, and the ant
Appears a monstrous elephant.

Charles Cotton, ‘Evening Quatrains’ (1689)

The little bug that could


Welcome to the second instalment of my three-part series on the aphid, ant, ladybird relationship. If you don’t like ants, look away now!


Less than .5% of the world’s species of ant live in the UK. It is mostly too cold and wet for them, something not difficult to believe given the spring we’re having! By far the most common is the black garden ant, Lasius Niger.


These tough, fast, little ants live in colonies of up to 15,000. They eat insects, seeds, nectar and even the bodies of their own dead.


As illustrated in an earlier post, they have a particular liking for the sticky honeydew secreted by aphids and will climb bushes to “herd” aphids, protecting them from predators. They obtain the honeydew by stroking the aphids with their feelers!


On certain still, warm days each summer, males and queens will emerge from the nest and take to the wing, mating in flight. The queens then shed their wings and start new nests. The males, their sole purpose fulfilled (if they are lucky), die. Environmental cues lead to all the nests in a locality releasing their males and queens at the same time. This enables inter-nest mating, ensuring genetic diversity.


The study of ants is called myrmecology. This made me think of Achilles’ myrmidons so I looked up the etymology of the word and learned my new thing for the day! According to myth, Zeus made the Myrmidons from a nest of ants. Another meaning of myrmidon is a faithful follower who carries out orders without question.


“Next time you’re found, with your chin on the ground,
There’s a lot to be learned, so look around.

Just what makes that little old ant
Think he’ll move that rubber tree plant?
Anyone knows an ant, can’t,
Move a rubber tree plant.

But he’s got high hopes, he’s got high hopes,
He’s got high, apple pie, in the sky hopes.

So any time you’re gettin’ low,
‘Stead of letting go,
Just remember that ant,
Oops there goes another rubber tree plant.”

“High Hopes” Cahn/Van Heusen

The shepherds and the wolf

A story in photographs.
(If you don’t like bugs you may want to look away now!)


I took this image in my garden last summer. It is part of a story I told with my camera on Flickr over a few days. Here’s the whole thing:

Some species of ant ‘milk’ aphids by stroking them with their antennae. This encourages the aphids to secrete a sticky substance known as honeydew which the ants eat. Here an ant is caught in the act of doing just that. The ants tend their aphid herds like shepherds, protecting them from predators.

The next day a visitor has appeared. A hungry ladybird (ladybug to my American friends) can think of nothing better than this ready-prepared banquet of its favourite food, aphids. An angry ant-shepherd glares at this wolf in the fold.

A day later and the voracious ladybird is still laying siege to aphid city. The ant shepherd has brought in reinforcements but to no avail. The ladybird is like a Sherman tank and angry looks just aren’t going to work. If you look closely you can see an aphid’s legs sticking out of the ladybird’s mouth.

Another day later and the shepherds appear to have given up and left their flock to their fate. However, that is not the end of the story. The next day, there was no sign of the ladybird and the ants were back tending their flock as if nothing had ever happened.

Of course, really one should not anthropomorphise animals, but sometimes it is just too tempting.