RESEARCHERS in York have discovered infestations of invasive garden “super ants” which build huge colonies, prompting concerns about the impact on native wildlife.
The ants appeared to be spreading at a faster rate after three new infestations of the species from Asia, which is thought to have come to the UK on imported plants, were found this year.
A total of six known infestations of Lasius neglectus, which has garnered the nickname “fire ant” because of claims it is attracted to electric cables and sockets, have been found since it was first discovered at a National Trust property in 2009.
But experts believe the number of colonies now in the UK is under-reported, researchers at the University of York said.
Despite being known as “super ants”, they are slightly smaller than native species, but build huge colonies with a number of queens and interconnected nests, that can stretch for miles.
After the first colony, with around 35,000 ants, was discovered in Gloucestershire, it has also been found in Yorkshire and on the south coast, London and Cambridgeshire.
Researchers are concerned they could pose a threat to wildlife including ants, woodlice and beetles, out-competing native ants for space and aphids.
The super ants “farm” the aphids for honeydew, prompting an increase in the tiny pests which feed on and can destroy plants.
Dr Elva Robinson has worked alongside PhD student Phillip Buckham-Bonnett since 2014 to establish the extent of the UK invasion to inform a rapid risk assessment which has been submitted to the Government.
She said: “We think the invasive ants have the potential to have a big impact on the native ecosystem. In the sites we have studied, it is clear they are excluding the native ants.
“They are clearly dominating, and where they cluster, native species are being pushed out.
“So far, they have been discovered in gardens and glass houses, but we don’t yet know whether these ants will be able to thrive outside areas of human habitation.”
She added: “Apart from being slightly smaller, the invasive garden ant looks a lot like our common native garden ant so they can be difficult to recognise.
“These new ants are not aggressive, they do not sting and they pose no harm to humans beyond people finding it unpleasant to have an infestation.”