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Endangered aphid-stroking ants don wee radio backpacks

1,000 beasties tagged to help probe insects' social network

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Boffins are fitting 1,000 northern hairy wood ants with teeny-tiny backpacks to track them in their habitat.

The University of York researchers will take their ants from the National Trust's Longshaw Estate in Derbyshire, which is a hotspot for the protected beasties containing over 1,000 nests and 50 million worker ants.

The boffins wil "carefully catch" the wee bugs and stick a 1mm radio receiver on each one, in the hopes of figuring out how they communicate and travel between their complex nests.

The ant colonies are housed in several nests connected by insect highways, with multiple queens spread out between the nests.

"The radio receivers act like a barcode to mark out each individual ant. A single ant is not particularly clever but is part of an elaborate system that is clearly performing very effectively at Longshaw," Samuel Ellis, the biologist heading up the research, said.

“The way the ants use this network has important implications for how they interact with their environment. And the way information is passed through the network may even have implications for our information and telecommunications networks.”

As well as figuring out how the bugs talk, the research should help the National Trust staff on the estate to manage the ancient woodland for the ants.

Oddly, the creepy-crawlies rely on sap-sucking aphids that like oak, birch and pine, but the ants themselves don't really do well in dense woodland like that. The beasties don't eat the aphids, but instead gently stroke them to harvest honeydew from them that they use to feed their young. In return for this nectar, the ants protect the aphids.

The two main populations for the northern hairy wood ant, which has near-threatened conservation status, are in the Peak District and in the North York Moors. ®

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