Ant recording and identification


There are a staggering 15,000 or more species of ant across the world but here in the UK there are 11 genera comprising 51 native species, with a further 1 genera and three species restricted to the Channel Islands. There are a further 13 introduced species associated with artificially heated environments such as greenhouses and conservatories. Despite being the most numerous insect on the planet, ants are drastically under-recorded at both a National and International level with most records derived from a band of dedicated entomologists, myrmecologists and ant enthusiasts. Ant abundance is perhaps their downfall; they are often overlooked and yet, as ecosystem engineers, they are of great ecological importance. Seed spreaders, habitat creators, corpse removers, soil turners, butterfly farmers, beetle harbourers, bird and mammal food...the benefits of ants on the wider environment are numerous and complex. In VC55 Leicestershire and Rutland we have 24 species of ant and a significant number of these are considered uncommon, rare or rarely recorded.


VC55 is no exception to the general rule and there is much that can be done to improve recording in Leicestershire and Rutland. Most of the work on ants in VC55 was previously undertaken by ant pioneer Harry Broughton who recorded ants and ant behaviour across Leicestershire and Rutland meticulously for over 30 years until his death in 2007. Since this period gaps have been filled by VC55 Hymenoptera County Recorder Helen Ikin, Steve Woodward and more casually by many of our regular biological recorders. Gavin Gamble is now the record verifier for ants in VC55 and undertakes the majority of recording and identification work across both counties.

Records in contrast to other invertebrates in our region, however, do make for relatively slim pickings. Our most common ant, Lasius niger, holds only 138 records on NatureSpot and 522 VC55 records in total (as of May 2020), yet it is likely that this ant is present in most Leicestershire and Rutland gardens, parks, green spaces, towns, villages, pavements, roadsides and beyond. It is not unreasonable to assume that greater recording effort will reveal a number of those species currently considered rare or uncommon in VC55 to be far more widespread than the data indicate at present. It is also feasible that at least a further two species may be found within VC55 in the not-too-distant future as climate change continues to push those with a more southerly distribution northwards – a pattern that has already been observed in the surrounding southern counties. In fact, VC55 is an interesting location for ant fauna in the UK, often forming the boundary of species with a mainly northern and mainly southern distribution. Indeed there is visible crossover between populations, with Formica lemani, a predominantly northern species and Formica fusca, a predominantly southern species both occurring here.

ID Tips

As with most invertebrate groups, ants present a significant challenge in identification to species level. One of the main reasons why ants are under-recorded is perhaps due to this difficulty, with many species of ant being separated only by minute morphological differences such as hair placement and sculpturing. All of the ants currently featured on NatureSpot carry a 'Red' rating and it is necessary to follow the 'recording advice' text. The use of a key whilst examining the specimen is required for correct identification and a list of online accessible and printed keys are provided below. 

Most of the time use of a stereomicroscope will be necessary however sometimes good results can be achieved with detailed macro-photography whilst a hand lens may be useful in identifying some of the larger 'Wood ant' species. If taking photographs there are a few key positions that would greatly help in trying to obtain an identification; photographs of the ant from above, face-on, in side profile and from above and behind the head pointing down towards the antennae. Particular attention should be paid to the base of the antenna (the scapes) and the joint which connects them to the side of the head and also the section of the thorax known as the petiole and post-petiole including, if present, the propodeal spines.

A number of the ant species now found in the NatureSpot Formicidae species gallery include annotated images showing the key features necessary for identification and these also help to indicate the key features to look out for when photographing and identifying any ant species. In due course further 'ID Aids' will be added to the species accounts as and when these are developed.

It is important to note that alongside morphology, particular attention should be paid to the immediate and wider habitat in which the specimen was collected and if submitting ant records you should include these details in the 'Comment' section. Where images are not clear enough to be certain of a species identification, habitat can often aid in reaching a reasonable conclusion - for instance there are a significant number of 'yellow' ants in Leicestershire and Rutland however Lasius flavus, the 'Yellow Meadow ant' is the most likely to create a mounded nest of soil in meadow and pasture (though some parasitic 'yellow' species may invade and utilise these nests) and so if you are in a location where these mounds are plentiful and obvious it would be reasonable to conclude that the majority of 'yellow' ants in this location will be Lasius flavus. In this particular instance a photograph of mounded nests may be accepted as a record of Lasius flavus.

All records and photographs submitted to NatureSpot will of course be checked and verified in the usual way however if you wish to obtain clarity, advice or information before submitting records then record verifier Gavin Gamble is happy to accept communications and photographs via email. Physical specimens may also be sent by post so that they can be examined and determined under the microscope. Specimens should be euthanised either by freezing or storing in an alcohol solution (80% alcohol, 20% water is fine) and posted securely. To email or arrange postage of specimens please contact:

Leicestershire & Rutland Resources

A Checklist of Ants in VC55 - Leicestershire and Rutland - Gavin Gamble, May 2020

Myrmecology VC55 - Gavin Gamble's blog on ant recording in Leicestershire and Rutland.



Royal Entomology Society London Formicidae Key - Online accessible key by Barry Bolton and Cedric A. Collingwood.

Key to Identifying Common French Ants - Don't let the title fool you because this is an extremely useful and detailed photographic key written in English which covers almost all of the British species and all species currently found in Leicestershire and Rutland.

AntKey - Online keys to a huge number of ants from across the globe, including all British species.


Most books old and new on ant natural history will include some form of key, however these often differ greatly in both scope and detail. As ant taxonomy is constantly evolving and ants are routinely moved, sub-divided and re-named some of the older published keys will now be out of date or at best cause confusion unless you are familiar with the ants previously assigned species name. As such, only a limited number of easily obtainable and reliable publications will be mentioned here.

Ants (Naturalists' Handbooks)  - Skinner, G. J. & Allen, G. W. (1996) updated (2015) - Small but very useful book including well organised, fairly detailed and easy to follow keys. If you can only have one book of keys then this is the book I would recommend.

The Ants (Hymenoptera, Formicidae) of Poland -  Czechowski, W., Radchenko, A. & Czechowska, W. (2002) - A comprehensive guide written in English which includes thorough, easy to follow keys. However, the keys to male Lasius species are omitted. 

The Ants of Central and North Europe - Bernhard Seifert (2018) - an excellent, authoritative, comprehensive reference book with fantastic keys. This is, however, reflected in the price.

Ants of Britiain and Europe - Claude Lebas, Christophe Galkowski, et al. (27 Jun 2019) - A recent and up-to-date guide, however it has been criticised for some prominent errors. The keys are useful but not the easiest to follow.

Other Useful Websites & Publications


BWARS (ants) - Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Scheme website. This link directs specifically to the ants pages which include species accounts with photographs, distribution, nesting habits, habitat requirements and identification aids for all British species.

AntWiki - Antwiki provides a wealth of information on the world's ants. Contributions come from ant experts together with discussions provided by experts and amatuers. In addition, data is collated from numerous global databases and integrated with individual taxon pages. Probably the most useful resource for ants and myrmecology on the web, featuring the very latest in science. The taxon pages are invaluable for providing species accounts, links to scientific papers, keys, photographs and researchers details.

AntWeb - The world's largest database of images, specimen records and natural history information on ants. A huge and effective community driven project.

AntMaps - Distribution data and maps.

AntCat - An online catalog of the ants of the world, including all British species.

Formis - A master bibliography of ant literature.

Global Ant Database - GLAD is a collaboration among ant ecologists worldwide bringing together data on the abundance and traits of ants in local assemblages across the globe.

AntKey - Keys, images, databases, maps and more.

Myrmecological News Blog - An international, non-profit, independent ant blog devoted to myrmecology and related fields. The blog accompanies the Myrmecological News Scientific Journal - the only journal devoted to ant science.

Myrm's Ant Nest - useful basic information and photographs of some of the most common British species.


All of the books previously mentioned in the keys section above are an invaluable resource on ant natural history, with each providing details on lifecycle, taxonomy, habitat, biology, ecology, identification and behaviour as well as tips on finding, collecting and studying ants. There are however many further useful and interesting books on ants, some of which are fairly obscure, old, collectable and because of this often expensive. Many of the good books on ants cannot be found on sites such as Amazon, so it is worth looking around on ebay and sites like AbeBooks and WorldOfBooks whilst more recent books which perhaps extend beyond general interest and into more detailed ant study can be found on the NHBS website and Pemberley books which specialise in Natural History literature.

The list below is by no means exhaustive but are titles that are considered to be amongst the best in printed ant literature (exluding those in the keys section). Some are large, detailed volumes for the dedicated enthusiast whilst others are specific to British ants and their study/recording.

  • The Ants - Bert Hölldobler and E. O. Wilson (1990)
  • Ants of Surrey - John Pontin (2005)
  • Ants (Collins New Naturalist Series volume 8) - Derek Wragge Morley (1953)
  • Ants (Collins New Naturalist Series volume 59) - Brian, Michael V. (1977)
  • The Ant World - Derek Wragge Morley (1953)
  • British Ants, Their Life-history and Classification - John Kelly Donisthorpe (1915)
  • Journey To The Ants - Bert Hölldobler and E. O. Wilson (1995)
  • Ant Ecology - Lach, Lori, Parr, Catherine L. & Abbott, Kirsti L. (2010)
  • Wood Ant Ecology and Conservation - Elva J. H. Robinson (2016)
  • The Evolutionary Ecology of Ant-Plant Mutualisms - Andrew J. Beattie (2010)