Queens, sunny spots and sticky tongue
Old churchyards and other burial grounds have become a refuge for the Yellow Meadow Ant, Lasius flavus, a species found in permanent pasture and meadow, now both rare habitats. You can tell if you have this lovely species in your site as it creates soil mounds or anthills over its nest, often against gravestones and facing the sun. The Yellow Meadow Ant is harmless, and the anthills are quite something, growing larger and larger over the years. Actually, the bulk of the ant nest is below ground, sometimes reaching 1m in depth. Within the nest the ants are protected, with temperature and humidity kept relatively constant. Here the ants are farmers, tending aphids which feed on the roots of the meadow grasses and then produce ‘honeydew’ – food for the ants.
Each of these mounds is started by a queen ant who lands in a warm sunny spot and starts a new colony. She lays eggs which hatch into worker ants who then go out to forage for food and make the nest. This is done by excavating in the ground and carrying innumerable particles of soil above ground level to build a series of chambers. As the number of workers increase so does the size of the mound. The little passages they make and travel through, are above and below ground. In the winter the whole colony retreats further underground away from the cold.
Anthills can be up to 100 years old and form a mini-habitat of their own. The ants need the warmth of the sun and so they trim back the grass growing on the mound surface and this encourages plants like lady’s bedstraw and wild thyme. You may spot plants on ant mounds that are not found elsewhere within your churchyard. Whilst the anthills give the ants a level of safety, green woodpeckers feed on them, visiting the mounds and using their extraordinarily long, sticky tongues to feast on the ants.
When you next visit a burial ground, look out for anthills, large or small, and on a sunny day you will see the ants busy at work. If you see an anthill you can make a biological record for Yellow Meadow Ant even if you don’t see the actual yellow coloured ant. Try using the iNaturalist app and photographing it. This is a useful species to record, as it is an indicator of ancient grassland, suggesting that your churchyard may hold many other treasures waiting to be identified.
All the best, Harriet Carty
Diocesan Churchyard Environmental Advisor, firstname.lastname@example.org,
www.caringforgodsacre.org.uk - individuals and groups in the diocese receive 20% members discount on all CfGA materials. Use the discount code diomem22