The extraordinary humps and bumps seen all over the hills in the Chilterns are home to the yellow meadow ant – more modest examples of anthills than the exotic ones found on the continents of Africa or Australia. Conservation by the volunteers removing scrub and long grass enables the ants to survive over many decades – they hide away out of sight busy keeping their house in order. The ant hills are often well over a foot high and extend down to the chalk subsoil often a few feet below.
Like all species of ants, the yellow meadow ant lives in organised social colonies, consisting of a reproductive female known as the queen, a few males, and a large number of workers which are non-sexual females.
During warm, humid days in July and August, winged male and female ants emerge from the mounds and swarm in a mating flight, after which the females land on the ground, shed their wings, and search for a suitable place to establish a new colony. – they make a new chamber in the ground staying throughout the winter until they can begin egg laying in the spring.
The vegetation growing on the ant hills helps to regulate the temperature and humidity of the soil with the plant roots reinforcing the structure and providing a food source for aphids which in turn create honey-due for the ants – another symbiotic arrangement of nature. If left to nature scrub and long grass would shade out the fine grasses and plants, and the ants would move out so livestock grazing is essential.
An increase in biodiversity
Ant hills provide a diverse range of micro-habitats in the grassland supporting many species of wild flowers and insects like the chalk hill blue butterfly. Yellow meadow ants have a special relationship with the caterpillars of the chalk hill blue – the ants have a liking for the honeydew secreted by their emerging caterpillars, so the worker ants bury the butterfly larvae, protecting them from predators. Rock rose, marjoram thyme and other herbs are a common sight on the grasslands supporting a host of insects, birds and mammals.
Yellow meadow ants are a suitable study subject for young nature lovers to keep as a colony – might be of interest to the Learning and Events volunteers.