Field Guides > Identifying common ants

garden ant

Garden Ant

meadow ant

Meadow Ant

pavement ants

Pavement Ant

robber ant, learn all about ants

Robber Ant

wood ant

Wood Ant

What are ants?

Hello! In this tutorial, we are going to learn all about some of our most common ants and do a little ant nature study.

Ants are small insects that can be found in many different forms all over the world. In fact, there over 12, 000 species of ant on Earth. Of these around 50 species live across Ireland and Britain, but, only five of them are very common. These are the garden ant, meadow ant, pavement ant, robber ant and wood ant.

The anatomy of an ant

Ants may be small, but they are very strong and can carry food many times their own weight and size.

Their little bodies made up of three parts, and they have six long, thin legs. They do have two eyes, although they cannot see very well, instead using the feelers on their heads for touching and smelling. They also have very strong and powerful jaws, (which open side to side instead of up and down!)

Let’s have a closer look at some of the parts on an ant.

ant anatomy eye



ant anatomy feelers



ant anatomy feelers


Ant jaws are strong and powerful. They use them for shovelling dirt as they dig their nests, catching and carrying food and defending the ant colony from invaders or predators.

ant anatomy legs


Ants have six legs – three on each side of their body. They are all connected at the thorax and each one has two tiny claws at the end, which the ant uses for gripping and climbing.

How do ants live?

Ants live in large groups called armies or colonies, in a home called a nest. These colonies can be as small as a few dozen, or as large as a million or more!

A nest is often underground and is made up of lots of tunnels (galleries) and chambers. The queen lives in they very heart of the nest, where she lays eggs and is in fed and cared for by the youngest worker ants.  Other chambers are are kept as nurseries for the larvae and pupae, while others are used to store food.

The pile of dirt you see at the entrance to the nest is used as incubators. On warm days, when the dirt above has been warmed up by the sun, the ants bring the babies and larvae up to be warmed up. While on cold days, they take them down to the shelter of the deepest parts of the nest.

Each nest is home to one colony and each colony has three to four different castes or members – queens, males, soldiers and worker ants. Let’s meet them…

meadow ant

Queen ants

Queen ants are in charge of organising and caring for both the colony and the nest. They are born with wings and when mature – and when the time is right, they leaves their nests and fly away in swarms, searching in search of a mate. She then finds a nice spot to start her very own nest.

meadow ant

Male ants


meadow ant

Worker ants

Worker ants make up most of the ants within a colony. The youngest workers care for the queen and look after the eggs and young larvae. Middle-aged workers look after the larger, more mature mature larvae and pupae, and the oldest ants guard the entrance to the nests and forage for food.

meadow ant

Soldier ants

Soldier ants are a the largest type of worker ants, with huge, powerful jaws which they use to protect and defend the colony from attack by other insects or neighbouring ant colonies.

What is an ant farm?

Many ants live in a symbiotic relationship with small, sap-sucking insects like aphid. This means that the ants and the aphids both look after and provide for each other. Here, the ants ‘farm’ the aphids by protecting and providing food for them.

Sap contains a lot of both fluid and sugarm but not much protein. So the aphids have to suck up a lot of sap to try and meet their protein requirements. This means they also suck up a lot of sugar, which becomes concentrated inside their little bodies.

So, when the ants feel hungry, or need sugar, they stroke the aphids with their antennae, and the aphids excrete syrupy sugar droplets from special glands in their bodies, which the ants can then eat. In exchange for this, the ants stand guard over their ‘herd’ of aphids to protect them from other insects or animals.

meadow ant

Meadow ants

Interesting fact – Are often covered with tiny parastites which live under their chins and tap the ants’ feelers when hungry. This prompts the ant to regurgitate its food, which the mite then eats. Some ants even herd their flock of pahids into their nests as night!

Ants around the world

Tailor ants live high up in the branches of Asian forests, where they build their nests by folding up large tropical leaves. After folding the leaf, they pin it together with their jaws and feet, then use a silk produced by their larvae to sew it together.

Leaf cutter ants carry pieces of cut up leaves back into their nest, where they chew it and leaves it to ferment. The fermented leaves provide food for a special type of fungus, which release heatand warm up the nest as they grow.

Harvester ants live in drought-prone areas, so they create big food stores within their nests for drying and storing seeds and other food.

Who are our most common ants?

The most common ants, you are likely to see, are:

  • Black garden ants
  • Red woodland ants
  • Yellow meadow ants

Black garden ants the those we often spot in our gardens or running along the pavements. While, the red ants are easily spotted if you take a walk through any of our beautiful woodlands or forests – and, even if you might not spot the ants themselves, you are sure to notice their large, dome shaped nests (they look like big piles of earth, twigs, leaves and needles). Lastly, your might spot yellow ants if picnicking in a  meadow or field, or sometimes if you try digging up your lawn. But, yellow ants are shy and don’t come up very often. 

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