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Researchers tune in to ants' wavelength

posted 28 Aug 2012, 12:58 by Mpelembe   [ updated 28 Aug 2012, 12:58 ]

A thousand ants are being fitted with radio transmitters to help biologists in the north of England track their movement and communication habits. The scientists say the ants could provide valuable lessons for humans in improving telecommunications technology. Joanne Nicholson reports.

DERBYSHIRE, ENGLAND, UNITED KINGDOM,  NATIONAL TRUST - It's painstaking work requiring great care and patience. But for biologists it could prove invaluable.

Researchers from the University of York are attaching tiny radio tracking devices to a thousand hairy wood ants who live in colonies at a site in Derbyshire, northern England.

They want to follow the ants as they go about their daily lives to see where they go and how they communicate with one another in the process.

Samuel Ellis is on the team.


"Each individual node is given a simple set of rules to follow but as a whole it produces a complex, useful system."

The scientists hope the insects will unlock secrets that could help improve human telecommunication networks.

There are 50 million ants at the site in Derbyshire - the researchers want to work out if the ants live in just one nest or move between the thousand nests that host the colonies.

The project's set to span three years but National Trust ranger, Chris Millner hopes to achieve a secondary goal at the same time - preserving the endangered ants by replacing invasive vegetation with the conifer forests the ants prefer.


"It's taking away the food source for the wood ants, a bit like Sam if he has the food source taken away in his study, and if we're planting more trees, where's the best place to plant them for the wood ants?"

The ants get their food from the aphids that generate sap from the trees. They then regurgitate the sap back at the ant nest to feed the other ants.

But the scientists want to know much more. And in three years, with patience and the technology, they hope to have gained new insights into the busy life of the northern hairy wood ant.