Ant-astic project is a world-first

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Rare ants will be fitted with tiny radio backpacks in a pioneering scientific study taking place in Derbyshire.

Experts will carefully attach the microscopic radio receivers to 1,000 northern hairy wood ants on Longshaw Estate in a world-first experiment to track the threatened insects’ behaviour.

The three-year University of York project aims to examine how the ants communicate and travel between nests.

Findings will help conservationists better manage the ancient woodland at the National Trust site – therefore protecting the at-risk insects.

Research leader Samuel Ellis said: “With this information, land managers will be better equipped to ensure that they don’t accidentally destroy a colony.”

Chris Millner, a Longshaw Estate ranger, added: “It’s fascinating to just sit and watch the ants as they go about their business.

“Over the next few years we’ll be carrying out some forestry work and this study will help to avoid hurting the insects.”

Researchers say they will not harm the thumbnail-sized ants by fitting the one-millimetre tracking devices.

Mr Ellis said: “The radio receivers act like a barcode to mark out each individual ant.

“A single ant isn’t particularly clever but is part of an elaborate system which is clearly performing very well at Longshaw Estate.”

The unique site is home to up to 50 million northern hairy wood ants and more than 1,000 nests made out of leaves and twigs.

The insects can defend themselves from predators by spraying formic acid – a smelly substance about as strong as vinegar which can blister the skin.

However, the species – which can be found as far south as mid-Wales – has international near-threatened conservation status.

The ant tagging will begin next summer.