Conserving the red-barbed ant in the UK
The red-barbed ant (Formica rufibarbis) is regarded as the rarest animal in Britain.
It can be found throughout Europe but here in the UK it only survives on the Isles of Scilly and at one site on the UK mainland in Surrey, Chobham Common National Nature Reserve, making it a priority Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) species.
Chobham Common only has ants of one sex making the population unsustainable. In addition to this, habitat loss and degradation of their native heathland has caused serious declines in the population. In light of this a conservation programme was urgently needed to help stabilise and increase this population.
Therefore in 2006, with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, ZSL and the Surrey Wildlife Trust (SWT) embarked on a three year project working towards the protection and recovery of this species in Surrey.
ZSL has been breeding red-barbed ants in captivity at ZSL London Zoo in a purpose-built insect rearing facility whilst SWT prepared ideal habitat conditions for their release.
The project has:
- Completed extensive genetic, behavioural and ecological studies into this species of which previously little was known.
- Completed habitat surveys and monitoring to locate and map their nests.
- Released over 20 colonies, including 23 queens, of captively bred stock to supplement existing wild populations and discovered three more colonies in Chobham Common.
- Trained over 30 volunteers to assist with surveys, habitat monitoring and habitat management work, helping them develop invaluable conservation skills.
- Raised awareness of this important species and it’s habitat through educational material and media coverage.
Now with the project nearing the end we understand the needs of the red-barbed ant and the services they provide to the heathland ecosystem as a whole.
But there is still much more work and research needed to ensure the health of this species. ZSL and SWT are working hard to secure more funding to continue this important work in order to fully establish a strong healthy, self-sufficient population in Surrey.
Red-barbed ant facts
- It is a large, conspicuous insect, easily recognised with distinct red colouration on its head and long hairs on it’s thorax.
- It nests underground or beneath stones with only one entrance in which to gain access. These nests can extend up to 30cm underground and contain 2-3 queens and a few thousand workers. The queens reside in a special chamber right at the bottom of the nest.
- When mating the winged queen will wait until a clear, sunny day and then travel to the top of grass blades or any predominant stem and attract a male by emitting a pheromone scent. Once she has mated she will then bite off her wings and descend into her nest. The queen will only mate once in her life storing sperm inside her body so that she can produce eggs throughout her lifetime.
- The ideal habitat for these insects is bare ground in heathland. Bare ground is beneficial to the whole heathland ecosystem promoting vegetation succession, removal of nitrates from the soil and providing habitat for many other BAP species such as sand lizards (Lacerta agilis) and wood larks (Lullula arborea). It also benefits the visiting public by providing a diverse heathland landscape in which a plethora of wildlife can be seen and enjoyed.
- They are an important food source for other native wildlife e.g woodpeckers, aphids and consume invertebrate prey and carrion such as moths and other dead ants.
In partnership with: