Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Get access
    Check if you have access via personal or institutional login
  • Cited by 2
  • Print publication year: 2016
  • Online publication date: June 2016

12 - Threats, conservation and management


The ecological effects of red wood ants of the Formica rufa group extend over several trophic levels. Due to their multiple roles in the environment they can be referred to both as keystone species and ecosystem engineers. Therefore any change to their status and distribution affects not only the ants themselves but a more widespread suite of species (including myrmecophiles and myrmecochorous plants) and ecosystem processes such as nutrient cycling (see Chapters 6, 7, 8 and 9).

Where they occur, wood ants are usually populous and, as such, they need abundant and stable resources and favourable abiotic conditions for reproduction. However, while the workers are numerous, only queens and males reproduce, which is why effective population sizes and thereby conservation needs are easily underestimated. In addition, it is large colony size which makes the wood ants vulnerable, because they need relatively large habitat patches with stable food sources to maintain viable colony functions. Therefore, loss of suitable breeding habitat is a major threat and many of the red wood ants have a status as ‘near threatened species’ globally (see Table 1.1 in Chapter 1). However, habitat loss is far from the sole threat since pollution, climate change and natural causes of decline (e.g. pathogens) also have an effect on red wood ants.

The threats against wood ants can be categorised as: (1) harmful changes in availability or quality of food (e.g. loss of aphids, contamination of food); (2) loss of suitable habitat (e.g. increase of agricultural and urban areas); (3) changes in climatic conditions (e.g. climate change, microclimate change); (4) natural causes of decline; and (5) their interactions. These threats, and how they can be addressed, are the subject of this chapter.

Habitat management

Wood ants are mainly forest-dwelling animals. Their large colonies are dependent on vast aphid populations living in tree canopies. Therefore, the most extreme events affecting wood ants are in relation to forest management, which has also been the focus of much of the published literature. Severe forest management practices such as clear felling, or felling with some retention trees, clearly cause negative biotic and abiotic changes in the environment, and for wood ants this means changing the availability of aphid-originated food and microclimate (Figure 12.1).

Bahrs, J. (2000) Ameisenhügel in Brand gesteckt!Ameisenschutz Aktuell 14, 54.
Bradley, G. A. (1972) Transplanting Formica obscuripes and Dolichoderus taschenbergi (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) colonies in jack pine stands of southeastern Manitoba. The Canadian Entomologist 104: 245–253.
Brian, M. V. (1983) Social Insects: Ecology and Behavioural Biology. London: Chapman & Hall.
Cathrine, C. and MacIver, C. (2014) Caledonian Conservation Ltd Technical Note 1: Wood Ant Translocation Protocol. Hamilton, UK: Caledonian Conservation Ltd.
Chapman, R. E. and Bourke, A. F. G. (2001) The influence of sociality on the conservation biology of social insects. Ecology Letters 4: 650–662.
Chen, Y. H. and Robinson, E. J. H. (2015) The relationship between canopy cover and colony size of the wood ant Formica lugubris: implications for the thermal effects on a keystone ant species. PLoS One 9(2): e116113.
Cherix, D. (1977) Les fourmis des bois et leur protection. Lausanne, Switzerland: WWF Switzerland and Centre Suisse Education-Environnement (CSEE/SZU).
Chernenko, A., Vidal-Carcia, M., Helanterä, H. and Sundström, L. (2013) Colony take-over and brood survival in temporary social parasites of the ant genus Formica. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 67: 727–735.
Christe, P., Oppliger, A., Bancalà, F., Castella, G. and Chapuisat, M. (2003) Evidence for collective medication in ants. Ecology Letters 6: 19–22.
Czechowski, W. (1990) Autonomization of slaves from mixed colonies of Formica sanguinea LATR. and F. polyctena FOERST. (Hymenoptera, Formicidae). Memorabilia Zoologica 44: 55–63.
Czechowski, W. and Vepsäläinen, K. (2009) Territory size of wood ants (Hymenoptera: Formicidae): a search for limits of existence of Formica polyctena FÖRST., an inherently polycynic and polycalic species. Annales Zoologici 59: 179–187.
Czechowski, W., Radchenko, A., Czechowska, W. and Vepsäläinen, K. (2012) The ants of Poland with reference to the myrmecofauna of Europe. ZooKeys 247: 69–71.
Eeva, T., Sorvari, J. and Koivunen, V. (2004) Effects of heavy metal pollution on red wood ant (Formica s.str.) populations. Environmental Pollution 132: 533–539.
Finnegan, R. J. (1975) Introduction of a predacious red wood ant, Formica lugubris (Hymenoptera: Formicidae), from Italy to eastern Canada. The Canadian Entomologist 107: 1271–1274.
Finnegan, R. J. (1977) Establishment of a predacious red wood ant, Formica obscuripes (Hymenoptera: Formicidae), from Manitoba to eastern Canada. The Canadian Entomologist 109: 1145–1148.
Fleischmann, H. (2007) German Office for the Protection of Ants. Work Group on Emergency Resettlements. Guidelines on Emergency Resettlements of Wood Ant Populations. Trans. Steuber, V. Hünxe, Germany: Deutsche Ameisenschutzwarte e.V.
Fleischmann, H. (2014) Bilanz der Not- und Rettungsumsiede lungen 1985–2013: 5.622 umgesiedelte Waldameisenvölker. Ameisenschutz aktuell 28: 1–4.
Fullarton, G. (2012) Term contract for management and maintenance of the Scottish trunk road network: north west unit. Commissioned report. Glasgow, UK: Transport Scotland.
Gill, R. J., Ramos-Rodriguez, O. and Raine, N. E. (2012) Combined pesticide exposure severely affects individual- and colony-level traits in bees. Nature 491: 105–U119.
Goropashnaya, A. V., Fedorov, V. B. and Pamilo, P (2004) Recent speciation in the Formica rufa group ants (Hymenoptera, Formicidae): inference from mitochondrial DNA phylogeny. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 32: 198–206.
Haatanen, M.-K. and Sorvari, J. (2013) Similarity of body size in queens of the wood ant Formica aquilonia from optimal and sub-optimal habitats indicates a strong heritable component. Journal of Insect Science 13: article 115.
Hannah, L., Lovejoy, T. E. and Schneider, S. H. (2005) Biodiversity and climate change in context. In Lovejoy, T. E and Hannah, L. (eds), Climate Change and Biodiversity. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, pp. 3–14.
Heinze, J., Foizik, S., Kipyatkov, V. E. and Lopatina, E. B. (1998) Latitudinal variation in cold hardiness and body size in the boreal ant species Leptothorax acervorum (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). Entomologia Generalis 22: 305–312.
Hughes, J. (2008) Translocation principles for wood ants. Comissioned report to TranServ. Scotland, UK: Jonathan Hughes Ecological Consultancy.
IUCN (2015) IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2015.3. Available at: (accessed 18 September 2015).
Johansson, T. and Gibb, H. (2012) Forestry alters foraging efficiency and crop contents of aphid-tending red wood ants, Formica aquilonia. PLoS One 7(3): e32817.
Jürgensen, M. F., Storer, A. J. and Risch, A. C. (2005) Red wood ants in North America. Annales Zoologici Fennici 42: 235–242.
Katayev, O. A., Golutvin, G. I. and Selikhovkin, A. V. (1983) Changes in arthropod communities of forest biocoenoses with atmospheric pollution. Entomological Review 62: 20–29.
Keenan, R. J. and Kimmins, J. P. (1993) The ecological effects of clear-cutting. Environmental Reviews 1: 121–144.
Keller, L. and Genoud, M. (1997) Extraordinary lifespans in ants: a test of evolutionary theories of ageing. Nature 389: 958–960.
Kilpeläinen, J.Niemelä, P. and Kuuluvainen, T. (2011) A review of the study of Oinonen (1956) on ants on rocks and their contribution to forest regeneration in Southern Finland. Scandinavian Journal of Forest Research 26(S10): 72–80.
Laakso, J. and Setälä, H. (1997) Nest mounds of red wood ants (Formica aquilonia): hot spots for litter dwelling earthworms. Oecologia 111: 565–569.
Lappalainen, H. K., Linkosalo, T. and Venäläinen, A. (2008) Long-term trends in spring phenology in a boreal forest in central Finland. Boreal Environment Research 13: 303–318.
Mabelis, A. (1994) Flying as a survival strategy for wood ants in a fragmented landscape (Hymenoptera, Formicidae). Memorabilia Zoologica 48: 147–170.
Mäki-Petäys, H. and Breen, J. (2007) Genetic vulnerability of a remnant ant population. Conservation Genetics 8: 427–435.
Mäki-Petäys, H., Zakharov, A., Viljakainen, L., Corander, J. and Pamilo, P. (2005) Genetic changes associated to declining populations of Formica ants in fragmented forest landscape. Molecular Ecology 14: 733–742.
McKinney, M. L. (2002) Urbanization, biodiversity and conservation. BioScience 52: 883–890.
Migula, P., Glowacka, E., Nuorteva, S. L., Nuorteva, P. and Tuulisalo, E. (1997) Time-related effects of intoxication with cadmium and mercury in the red wood ant. Ecotoxicology 6: 307–320.
Oinonen, E. (1956) On the ants of the rocks and their contribution to the afforestation of rocks in southern Finland. Acta Entomologica Fennica 12: 1–212. (In Finnish with English abstract.)
Pettis, J. S., vanEngelsdorp, D., Johnson, J. and Dively, G. (2012) Pesticide exposure in honey bees result in increased levels of the gut pathogen Nosema. Naturwissenschaften 99: 153–158.
Pisarski, B. and Czechowski, W. (1990) The course of artificial colonization of red wood ants in the Gorce National Park. Memorabilia Zoologica 44: 37–46.
Podkowka, T. (1984) Recession of ants of the Formica rufa group in the forests of Poland. In 2nd Symposium on the Protection of Forest Ecosystems. Warsaw: Warsaw Agricultural University Press, pp. 89–93.
Punttila, P. (1996) Succession, forest fragmentation, and the distribution of wood ants. Oikos 75: 291–298.
Punttila, P., Haila, Y., Pajunen, T. and Tukia, H. (1991) Colonisation of clearcut forests by ants in the southern Finnish taiga: a quantitative survey. Oikos 61: 250–262.
Punttila, P., Haila, Y., Niemelä, J. and Pajunen, T. (1994) Ant communities in fragments of old-growth taiga and managed surroundings. Annales Zoologici Fennici 31: 131–144.
Rabitsch, W. B. (1997) Levels of asymmetry in Formica pratensis Retz. (Hymenoptera, Insecta) from a chronic metal-contaminated site. Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry 16: 1433–1440.
Robinson, N. A. and Robinson, E. J. H. (2013) Myrmecophiles and other invertebrate nest associates of the red wood ant Formica rufa (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) in north-west England. British Journal of Entomology and Natural History 26: 67–88.
Rosengren, R. and Pamilo, P. (1978) Effect of winter timber felling on behaviour of foraging red wood ants (Formica rufa group) in early spring. Memorabilia Zoologica (Warszava) 29: 143–155.
Rosengren, R. and Pamilo, P. (1983) The evolution of polygyny and polydomy in mound-building Formica ants. Acta Entomologica Fennica 42: 65–77.
Rosengren, R. and Sundström, L. (1991) The interaction between red wood ants, Cinara aphids and pines: a ghost of a mutualism past? In Huxley, C. R., and Cutler, D. F. (eds), Ant–Plant Interactions. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, pp. 80–91.
Rosengren, R., Vepsäläinen, K. and Wuorenrinne, H. (1979) Distribution, nest densities and ecological significance of wood ants (the Formica rufa group) in Finland. Organisation Internationale de Lutte Biologique Contre les Animaux et les Plantes Nuisibles, Bulletin Section Regionale Ouest Palearctique II-3: 181–213.
Rosengren, R., Fortelius, W., Lindström, K. and Luther, A. (1987) Phenology and causation of nest heating and thermoregulation in red wood ants of the Formica rufa group studied in coniferous forest habitats in southern Finland. Annales Zoologici Fennici 24: 147–155.
Seifert, B. (2007) Die Ameisen Mittel- und Nordeuropas. Tauer, Germany: Lutra Verlags- und Vertriebsgesellschaft.
Seifert, B., Kulmuni, J. and Pamilo, P. (2010) Independent hybrid populations of Formica polyctena x rufa wood ants (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) abound under conditions of forest fragmentation. Evolutionary Ecology 24: 1219–1237.
Seppä, P (2008) Do ants (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) need conservation and does conservation need genetics?Myrmecological News 11: 161–172.
Shorohova, E., Kneeshaw, D., Kuuluvainen, T. and Gauthier, S. (2011) Variability and dynamics of old-growth forests in the circumboreal zone: implications for conservation, restoration and management. Silva Fennica 45: 785–806.
Solomon, S., Qin, D., Manning, M., et al. (eds) (2007) Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge, UK and New York, USA: Cambridge University Press.
Sorvari, J. (2006) Two distinct morphs in the wood ant Formica polyctena in Finland: a result of hybridization?Entomologica Fennica 17: 1–7.
Sorvari, J. (2013) Proximity to the forest edge affects the production of sexual offspring and colony survival in the red wood ant Formica aquilonia in forest clear-cuts. Scandinavian Journal of Forest Research 28: 451–455.
Sorvari, J. and Eeva, T. (2010) Air pollution diminishes aggressiveness between territorial ant colonies. Science of the Total Environment 408: 3189–3192.
Sorvari, J. and Hakkarainen, H. (2004) Habitat-related aggressive behaviour between neighbouring colonies of the polydomous wood ant Formica aquilonia. Animal Behaviour 67: 151–153.
Sorvari, J. and Hakkarainen, H. (2005) Deforestation reduces nest mound size and decreases the production of sexual offspring in the wood ant Formica aquilonia. Annales Zoologici Fennici 48: 259–267.
Sorvari, J. and Hakkarainen, H. (2007a) The role of food and colony size in sexual offspring production in a social insect: an experiment. Ecological Entomology 32: 11–14.
Sorvari, J. and Hakkarainen, H. (2007b) Forest clearing and sex ratio in forest-dwelling wood ant Formica aquilonia. Naturwissenschaften 94: 392–395.
Sorvari, J. and Hakkarainen, H. (2007c) Wood ants are wood ants: deforestation causes population declines in the polydomous wood ant Formica aquilonia. Ecological Entomology 32: 707–711.
Sorvari, J. and Hakkarainen, H. (2009) Forest clear-cutting causes small workers in the polydomous wood ant Formica aquilonia. Annales Zoologici Fennici 46: 409–416.
Sorvari, J., Rantala, L. M., Rantala, M. J., Hakkarainen, H. and Eeva, T. (2007) Heavy metal pollution disturbs immune response in wild ant populations. Environmental Pollution 145: 324–328.
Sorvari, J., Hakkarainen, H. and Rantala, M. J. (2008a) Immune defense of ants is associated with changes in habitat characteristics. Environmental Entomology 37: 51–56.
Sorvari, J., Theodora, P., Turillazzi, S., Hakkarainen, H. and Sundström, L. (2008b) Food resources, chemical signalling and nest mate recognition in the ant Formica aquilonia. Behavioral Ecology 19: 441–447.
Sorvari, J., Haatanen, M.-K. and Vesterlund, S.-R. (2011) Combined effects of overwintering temperature and habitat degradation on the survival of boreal wood ant. Journal of Insect Conservation 15: 727–731.
Sorvari, J., Huhta, E. and Hakkarainen, H. (2014) Survival of transplanted nests of the red wood ant Formica aquilonia (Hymenoptera: Formicidae): the effects of intraspecific competition and forest clear-cutting. Insect Science 21: 486–492.
Stary, P. and Kubiznàkovà, J. (1987) Content and transfer of heavy metal air pollutants in populations of Formica spp. wood ants (Hym., Formicidae). Journal of Applied Ecology 104: 1–10.
Vanhala, T., Watts, K., A'Hara, S. and Cottrell, J. (2014) Population genetics of Formica aquilonia wood ants in Scotland: the effects of long-term forest fragmentation and recent reforestation. Conservation Genetics 15: 853–868.
Wellenstein, G. (1973) The development of artificially founded colonies of hill-building red wood ants of the Formica rufa-group in South-western Germany. EPPO Bulletin 2(9): 23–34.
Wuorenrinne, H. (1994) Some interesting features on Finnish wood ant mounds. Memorabilia Zoologica 48: 261–265.
Żmihorski, M. (2010) Distribution of red wood ants (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) in the clear-cut areas of a managed forest in Western Poland. Journal of Forest Research 15: 145–148.