What’s so special about ants, you might ask. The next time you spot these incredible insects going about their business in the great outdoors, take a minute to appreciate their important role in the ecosystem. Wild’s Arnold Ras talked to the author of a new ant book – a first of its kind – on shelves later this year.

Did you know that more than 68 species of ants occur in South Africa? And that some of our most threatened fynbos plants have survived thanks to ants? These are just some of the fascinating facts Peter Slingsby has collected in his study of ants over the years. Better known as cartographer for Slingsby Maps, Peter is busy writing a new book, Ants of Southern Africa, that will reveal all things wickedly interesting about the life and ways of ants.

We asked him a few questions:

Most people know you as a cartographer, but you also have a great love for ants?

I learnt how to keep ants from the great Dr Sydney Skaife (renowned South African entomologist and naturalist) when I was about 15. It’s been a lifelong interest ever since.

What are some of the most intriguing facts about ants?

Phew. Where to start!

  • Queen ants can live for nearly 30 years – workers have much shorter lives.
  • There are ants that keep slaves, ants that farm other insects, ants that are vampires on their own kind, ants that steal from other ants, and ants that eat other ants.
  • Ants look after each other and tend to their young, but like humans they also make war on their own species as well as on other species of ants.
Ants-1-Peter Slingsby-Ochetellus glaber-Philip Herbst

Ochetellus glaber, copper-bellied ant: new invader from Australia first found in Africa in January 2016 (2mm). Pictures by Philip Herbst

Ants-2-Peter Slingsby-Cataulacus intrudens-Philip Herbst-Banner

Cataulacus intrudens, Savannah sculpted tree ant from KwaZulu-Natal that lives in Vachellia thorns (collected by Ricky Taylor, 4-5mm)

Who would have thought that ants are imperative to the existence of thousands of fynbos species?

Thousands of plants produce seeds with a fatty, tasty attachment. If the right ants find them, they take them to their nests where the attachment is consumed, but the undamaged seed remains safely buried underground where it can germinate after the next fire. The process is well-known in several vegetation types around the world. After my botanist friend William Bond pointed it out to me in the 1980s, we went on to find that perhaps 2,000 fynbos species rely on ants to protect their seeds from fire in this way.

Ants-3-Peter-Slingsby-Camponotus fulvopilosus-Philip Herbst

Camponotus fulvopilosus, Karoo balbyter – one of our best-known, largest and widespread ants (up to 20mm)

Ants-4-Peter Slingsby-Camponotus niveosetosus-Philip Herbst

Camponotus niveosetosus, hairy sugar ant – one of the commonest ants in the Cape fynbos and occurs up to Gauteng (up to 8mm)

How do ants reproduce their colonies?

In two basic ways. In the commonest, young winged females and males fly out from the nests, often before rain. When a female meets a male from a different nest they mate. He dies or gets eaten by something else, whereas she sheds her wings and runs off to find a suitable nesting site. There she lays a few eggs and tends them through the larval and pupal stages into adulthood. She uses her now-redundant wing muscles as a food source during this time. Once the first workers appear, they take over the nursery duties and for the rest of her life the queen just lays eggs.

In the other method, called ‘budding’, the colonies have several queens. When the workers find a good source of food, a queen or two might run out with them and start a branch of the colony at the food source. Such colonies remain interlinked and may become absolutely huge; most pest ants work this way. All the Argentine ants in Cape Town, for example – trillions of them – belong to the same colony.

Ants-5-Peter Slingsby-Crematogaster peringueyi-Philip Herbst

Crematogaster peringueyi, Black cocktail ant – a very common ant especially in coastal areas that builds large ‘carton’ nests in bushes and trees (4mm)

Termites are related to cockroaches, ants to bees and wasps. Ants and termites are further apart than human beings and tortoises.
– Peter Slingsby on the difference between ants and termites

Ants-6-Peter Slingsby-Crematogaster schultzei-Philip Herbst

Crematogaster schultzei, Schultze’s cocktail ant – a ground dweller common on the West Coast (3mm)

What are some of the most interesting ant species you have come across?

They are all equally interesting really, but recently we discovered an Australian ant species, a copper-bellied ant, in my garden. It had never been found anywhere in Africa before, and no one knows whether it presents a threat or not, as an invader. What really intrigues me though is, how did it get here? And why in my garden of all gardens?

You are currently writing a book, Ants of Southern Africa. Do tell us more!

There are several websites that deal with African ants, but no books at all. I joined iSpot, an online site where people post pictures of plants, animals and more that they want to ID or where people ID pics that others have posted. There was a great selection of photos of ants available and the various photographers gave permission for their pics to be used, so the idea of a book or field guide was born.

Keep an eye on the Wild e-newsletter to find out more about Peter’s new book, Ants of Southern Africa, and stand to win a copy. Not receiving the newsletter? Subscribe now for the best in travel, conservation, wildlife and nature and, of course, stunning giveaways!