Scientists in the UK are taking a super-small approach to solving a big puzzle on the Longshaw Estate in the Peak District.
They want to know more about the northern hairy wood ant, an insect close to being threatened as a species.
So researchers from the University of York are fitting tiny radio tags to a thousand ants to find out how they communicate and travel among their complex nests.
The three year research project is a world first.
Experts carefully glue a one millimetre radio chip to each ant, insisting that the insects are not harmed in any way.
“The interesting thing about ants is that each individual ant is rather stupid, but together they do all these amazing and complicated behaviours,” explained Sam Ellis, a biologist at the University of York. “The key is to understand what very simple rules can you give an individual ant, but then when these, when they all interact, they do these complicated things. And these tags will hopefully help give information about this, because you can say this ant is doing this, this ant is doing this, and when they interact together, this happens. You can start to build up a picture.”
The tags act something like a supermarket bar-code, triggering monitors when the ant passes by pre-set sensors.
Researchers can examine how ants communicate with each other in their colonies, which are connected by a network of ant motorways.
Multiple ant queens live among several nests.
Scientists hope that the research project will not only shed light on the wood ants’ behaviour, but will also help to conserve them for the future.
Understanding more about them may ultimately keep this protected species off the endangered list.