An invasive species of ant may be heading to the UK, scientists suggest in a report today.
The Lasius neglectus ant has colonies up to 100 times bigger than the common UK garden ant and seems to prefer urban gardens and parks rather than rural areas.
An international team, led by Jacobus Boomsma at the University of Copenhagen, has been studying the species for the last 5 years. They have found that it has made a rapid march westward across Europe. Its original home was probably in western Asia, and there are now populations in Belgium, Germany and France.
The ants rapid advance seems to be due to two things. The ants are accidentally moved to new areas when people transport soil and pot plants from country to country.
The other key factor is the ant's social behaviour. The queen mates with males inside the colony, unlike most other ant species where the queen leaves and starts a new colony with new ants elsewhere.
This means the Lasius neglectus colony becomes huge as more and more queens mate producing a 'supercolony'. These are made up of interconnecting nests, and some of the largest colonies found have up to a 1000 nests, covering 100s or 1000s of kilometres.
Although the supercolony helps the ants to successfully invade new areas, there may be long term implications as the genetic diversity within the colony is going to reduce.
Lasius neglectus was first identified only 20 years ago from a colony in Budapest in Hungary. They look similar to the common European black garden ant but differ greatly in their behaviour and social structure.
Locally, the supercolony can out-compete other native ants for food or exterminate the native ants. They can also have an effect on other invertebrate wildlife in the area, which will impact on the local ecosystem.
It is probably only a matter of time before Lasius neglectus reaches the UK and the research team says the species has the potential to become a global problem.
This research is reported in the journal PLoS One