Most people probably don’t think ants would make particularly exciting photography subjects. Thousands of people head up to the Scottish highlands every year to see or take photos of the various enigmatic species that can’t be found anywhere else in the UK – wildcats, pine martens, ptarmigan, dotterel, capercaillie, and so on. But in the heart of Abernethy Forest, the ants are well worth a look.
Sitting at the edge of the Cairngorms National Park and partly owned by the RSPB, Abernethy Forest is home to the largest remaining tract of Ancient Caledonian Pine Forest. This forest used to cover huge swathes of Scotland, but clearing and agriculture have taken their toll. Abernethy is beautiful, and if you’ve only ever seen commercial pine plantations, it’s hard to believe quite how different a pine forest can be – open and vibrant, instead of dark and oppressive.
Lots of it looks like that, but a lot of it is significantly wetter and I figured it wasn’t worth drowning in a bog to take a photo. Just imagine one of those beautiful places in Scandinavia with wet meadows full of bog cotton and Brown Bears lumbering through on a regular basis. It’s basically the same in Abernethy, only we killed all the big stuff off centuries ago.
There are also several tranquil lochs dotted about, and you really couldn’t ask for a better wild camping spot. You’re often told that you’re not allowed to camp here, but Scotland is one of the few places in the world where you can be certain that you are, so I was more than happy to enjoy a couple of nights under the stars/clouds here. If you can call it night – this is what midnight looks like in June when you go this far north.
And between the lakes, among the enchanting pines, every now and then you might come across a huge mound covered in pine needles, with a surface that appears to shimmer in a slightly unnerving way. As you get closer, you realise that this shimmering is actually a staggering number of frantic Wood Ants, running to and fro over a nest that could be over a metre high.
The largest colonies will contain more than quarter of a million Wood Ants, and they’re fascinating to watch. Little columns of worker ants march up and down to a nearby source of recently discovered food. One of the sources they discovered happened to be the foam padding on my tripod legs, which must have tasted better to them than I imagine it would to me.
Head on meetings between two ants often result in the awkward you-go-this-way-okay-that-way-ah-this-way-oh-dear dance that we’re all too familiar with thanks to narrow pavements. Luckily for the ants, they can move along a stick in three dimensions and bypass each other this way before things get too uncomfortable.
I created the backlighting effect by balancing a flash behind the prop stick I was using (and ignoring the hundreds of ants that crawled all over it). As the light shone straight through the ants, you can really see the structure of their complex bodies, right down to the impossibly narrow connection between the thorax and the abdomen.
Most of the insects ran for cover as soon as a rain shower came, but a few kept running about, and so I kept shooting. And I’m glad I did – a couple of raindrops on my lens produced one of my favourite shots of the entire session, of an ant fighting the light.
As fun as all this was, the ants that didn’t go where I wanted them to go started to wear thin pretty quickly. They’re bigger than most ants in the UK, they can and will bite, and they can spray methanoic acid at you as a defense mechanism. (In fact, this is why the other name for methanoic acid is formic acid – the Latin word for ‘ant’ is formica.)
Take it from me that when you’ve got a swarm of Wood Ants determinedly making their way up the inside of your trousers, you suddenly don’t feel like sticking around much longer. The worst were the ones that would somehow very suddenly and rudely appear on my face, only to be met with an anguished slap and a quick ride back to the ground as a reward for their efforts.
After a couple of hours, I’d finally had enough. Luckily there was an excellent loch just a couple of miles away – a perfect end to an entertaining day!
(Special thanks should also be made to Nimrod, the awesome Maltese dude working for the RSPB who cooked me dinner one night and let me shower my mildly unpleasant-smelling body in his home. It was great to meet you, Nimrod!)