On a recent trip to Stoke Park in Bristol, I came across a colony of European Fire Ants (Myrmica rubra). Under a decomposing log, the wingless female workers were busily transporting food from A to B. The European fire ant is so named because it possesses a sting that is likened to a stinging nettle. This is used as a defence when their nest is disturbed, and they can be rather aggressive.
HABITAT AND DISTRIBUTION
Sometimes known as the Common Red Ant, it is found all over the UK (more in southern and central), Europe and some of North America and Asia. As mentioned this species can be found under logs, but also stones and in the soil within gardens, fields, parks, meadows, etc.
European fire ants grow to around 6mm in length (up to 9mm for the queens), and their colonies can have many queens (known as a polygyne form of colony). With an overall dark reddish colour, their heads tend to be darker and there may be a dark area on the gaster. Within the UK it would most probably be confused with Myrmica ruginodis, but the latter tends to be more hairy, have longer epitonal spines and a streaked (strigate) post-petiole (the last little part of its 'waist' before the bulbous gaster/abdomen). With the help of Ant Hill Forum, we have concluded these images are most probably Myrmica rubra (although microscopic examination may be needed to confirm 100%).
DIET, BEHAVIOUR AND REPRODUCTION
Their main food source is honeydew from the aphids they milk, but they are known to take insects and invertebrates too. Their most unusual food source is pollen.
OTHER NOTABLE FACTS
Two species of butterfly are known to parasitise the European fire ant, they are the Alcon Large Blue (Phengaris alcon) and the Scarce Large Blue (Phengaris teleius). The larvae of both these species emit special chemicals that resemble the ant larvae. The worker ants carry the larvae back to their nest where they feed them, and where the caterpillars can help themselves to the ants larvae!