'Electric' ants seen in UK for first time

A species of super ant with a fatal attraction to electricity has been discovered marching through Hidcote Manor gardens in Gloucestershire, one of England's finest National Trust properties. It is thought to be the first time Lasius neglectus, known as the Asian super ant, has been recorded in the UK, although the ants have been spotted in Germany, Hungary, France, Spain and Poland.

The species was first identified in Budapest 20 years ago and looks like a common black garden ant. Colonies at Hidcote have now been formally identified as Lasius neglectus, after investigation by English Heritage and the National Trust into infestations within the estate. The Asian super ant can form super-colonies, with many queens and interconnected nests spreading over a hectare. The queens breed with males from their own nest and quickly set up self-sufficient nests, even when separated from the main colony. The species is highly dependant on aphid honeydew and is associated with a range of tree species. Like American fire ants, their compulsion to follow electricity is stronger than their need for food or drink. Swarms of ants around electrical cables can cause blackouts.

Simon Ford, a nature conservation adviser for the National Trust in Wessex, said 35,000 ant carcasses were found inside just one electrical junction box in Hidcote. "The ants themselves pose little direct threat, as they don't bite people or pets. But their habit of creating super-colonies means they pose a threat to native species by outcompeting them for food and space, and the attraction to electrical circuitry means they could pose a fire risk," he said.

The super ant has so far proven resistant to traditional insect poison, so the National Trust is now working with pest controllers looking into options including bait systems and controlling their food source – aphids. Brian Ridout, an English Heritage entomologist, said their resemblance to the common ant may mean they have gone unnoticed at the estate for some time.

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