Posted by: Ross Gardner | November 6, 2016

The Life Within

A dormant wood ant nest might seem something of an odd source of inspiration for a distinctly seasonal post, but then inspiration can have its roots in unlikely places.  Wood ants (collectively the 4 species regarded as ‘true’ wood ants) are widely distributed across the UK, but in a generally scattered sense of the phrase.  A number of the woods in my locality, for example, hold large populations of the southern wood ant (Formica rufa), yet those in a neighbouring district could have none at all.  For those who have never come across one, the nests are manifested in the shape of mounds made from small twigs and other litter from the woodland floor.  Mature nests can be huge, a couple of metres across, perhaps, and a metre high.  Within them are the tunnels and chambers of the nest interior, partially excavated below ground level.  In summer the nest surface seethes with ants by the thousands.  During the cold days of winter the colony shrinks and retreats deep inside until work can begin again in earnest the following spring.


Left: the southern wood ant (Formica rufa), like many ants will ‘milk’ aphids for their sugar-rich honeydew. Right: a large nest mound. Ross Gardner 2016.

On a rather cold and grey November day the nest mound in question was devoid of any visible activity, so what of the chain of thought alluded to above?  Well, to see the laboriously constructed nest so empty of movement and to remember in the summer how it would have bristled with the legs and antennae of thousands of ants, was to become aware of how the life of a wood retreats with itself as the season draws on.  To feel a sense of things biding their time.  The pulse of life that throbs in high summer never truly ceases altogether.  There is dormancy for sure, but life, even the smallest or most delicate, will always be doing.

With this, my thoughts turn to the corners of the wood beneath the twittering flocks of long-tailed tits and the squawking jays.  A small spread of moss on the bark of a long-fallen oak thus expands exponentially.  It becomes a thicket of green fronds, from which issues a bizarre forest of lichen, or where strange craters are fashioned by the concave discs of glistening jelly fungi.  Beasts are also moving about; springtails; minuscule fungus gnats; a tiny translucent slug, immaculately miniature.

From such places emerges The Greater World of Little Things.


The lichen Cladonia coniocraea. Ross Gardner 2016.


A tiny slug browsing the moss. Ross Gardner 2016.


The jelly discs of Ascocoryne fungi nestling amongst the fronds. Ross Gardner 2016.

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