The forest’s smallest residents

When you walk through Culbin, it’s worth pausing to look down at the largely silent, almost invisible life on the forest floor.   Without this hectic activity underfoot, the forest and foreshore would be less fertile places, with far fewer plants, birds and mammals. The perfect place to consider this is the Sandlife stop.

Life at your feet

Wood ants live a hectic life here, deep down among the thin acid layer of soil, pine-needles, bark, mosses and lichens.   Their ant-hill society is strictly ordered, based around provision of food by worker ants, and defence of the nest, the queen ants and the young by soldier ants.

Many ants get eaten by the forest’s mammals and birds, providing a vital link in the forest and seashore food-chain.   These big black ants are not vicious.  Soldier ants may climb on to you to investigate your presence, but walk away from their anthill and they will no longer see you as a threat, peacefully vacating your trouser legs!

A badger will occasionally dig into an anthill in search of a high-protein fix of ant eggs – but it will only eat so many before the formic acid injected in the ant-stings drives it away.

Different types of beetle

Dung beetles lay their eggs in dung.  The grubs which hatch provide a useful meal for some birds and mammals, as well as helping to break matter down to provide nutrients for plantlife.  One such beetle is called the minotaur beetle – it’s equipped with black horns like a miniature bull.

Brightly-coloured soldier beetles tend to move a lot faster than the heavily-armoured dung beetles, scuttling rapidly over the forest floor.  They will sit and wait in flowers for other insects to attack and eat, but they also enjoy pollen and nectar themselves.  Even their velvety larvae are fierce predators, found in grass litter in the Spring and late Summer.


Man and woman looking at a wood ant on a piece of woodMost familiar of all, the 5-spot ladybird can often be found near wood ant colonies, as both ladybirds and ants use aphids (such as greenfly) for a food source.  Ants take a nutritious honedew from the aphids to feed their colony; ladybirds simply feed on the aphids themselves.  The ladybirds even lay their eggs on leaves where ahpids are present, relying on the easy food source to feed their grubs.

The ladybirds' bright red colouring and bitter taste both say ‘keep off’ to predators.  Bizarrely, humans once chewed a ladybird to cure toothache.  Please don’t try this today, though, as some ladybirds are endangered!

You can buy special jars with a magnifying lense lid with which to catch and observe beetles, spiders etc, but keep the beetle in it for as short a time as possible to minimise stress and always release it in the same spot you caught it.

There are more fascinating facts about beetles on the National Insect Week website.

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