Antroducing: The rapid runners from under the rock (Formica cunicularia)

With only another day left and almost out of tubes and bottles to put them in anyway, we weren't really looking to catch more ants. No more poking holes into rotten tree stumps and the Myrmica colony under the rock on the driveway of the hotel would not be coming home with us.

This meant we could do one more long hike and I would spend a bit more time looking at the distance than near my feet. The previous hike we left the hotel and left, deeper into the forest. Now we turned right, accompanied by Kittenmancer's parents, which led us past the ski piste again and beyond. After a while the chalets and hotels gave way to large mountain pastures where in the summer the shepherds would have their sheep. I was told that 'in the old days' these shepherds would be herding their flocks all the way to Dobrogea (close to where we were before), walking for hundreds of kilometers.

Basically, sheep are mobile semi-autonomous weed killers.

No sheep to be seen now though. Only the buzz-cut that they had left upon the landscape. I figured that there wouldn't be many Myrmicas in this area. While these homogenous fields of grass provide good food for ruminants, it's a rather sparse buffet for most insects. Combined with the fact that we were still high up in the cold mountains, I didn't expect to see any ants when I flipped one of the few rocks in the pasture that the shepherds hadn't cleared out.

Compulsive rock-flipping mode engaged.

I was wrong! And not the 'we meet again' Myrmicas, but Formicas, finally! I realized we still hadn't collected any species from this rather prominent genus yet. Looking back, it's actually not that surprising to find them here, as a lot of Formicas typically live in areas with poor vegetation. Large, capable workers with exceptional running speeds enable these species to successfully forage in areas where other ants would starve. The black with red thorax, large eyes, combined with the habitat put this species down as part of the rufibarbis group: a selection of closely related species of whom their main difference is their percentage of 'red', hairiness and geography.

From left to right: Formica clara, Formica rufibarbis and Formica cunicularia.

Of course we were supposed to be done with anthunting so we had no tools with us, not even a single catch tube. The only option here was obviously to finish hiking, go back to the hotel and gear up! Also we enlisted Kittenmancer's cousin & her husband again ("It's a nice walk, great views! Oh, and you haven't seen these ants yet.") as we do-over the hike.

However, apparently walking back and forth was the easy part, because this time even our awesome folding spade was having trouble with the amount of rocks hiding in the dirt. It was almost as if the shepherds had cleared their pastures by smashing everything to pebbles and then simply covering everything with sods.

Centimeter by centimeter, pebble by pebble, rock by rock we chased the evacuating workers down their tunnels deeper into the cold dirt. Too bad for the ants we'd gotten quite good at this by now. The men worked the shovel, depositing clumps of soil on folded out plastic bags for Kittenmancer to comb through for brood and workers, dexterously collecting them with test tube and brush.

Some curious locals walked past us, probably puzzled by these weird tourists. We discussed the merit of telling them we were digging up a lost treasure and then see if the next morning the whole field would be covered in freshly dug holes. Or maybe we were foreign biology students, coming all the way here to study these unique, exceptional, important, amazing, Romanian ants, and then seen if the locals would huff and puff in nationalistic pride.

All the while we were keeping an eye out for the queen. Though Formica royalty is easy to spot, being considerably larger than their workers, they aren't as polygynous as Myrmicas. A small colony like this one (they were only under one of the three available rocks) was likely to have only a single queen. But when we did find a queen, she was the wrong color: yellowish brown!

Also a bit small and then we found two more! Turns out that there were also Lasius flavus colonies in these pastures and they recently had their nuptial flights. So these young queens had found this rock and made the mistake of thinking it would make a good place for a new colony. Well at least now they were coming home with us, where they would have a better chance than right next to a Formica colony (which would be coming with us as well... so in hindsight that didn't make much sense).

It's a shame these pretty ants are always hiding.

Finally we did find the right queen. A lot deeper than we were expecting and definitely under a lot more rocks and dirt than we had hoped. We closed up the hole with the big rocks back on top and Kittenmancer and I did our final 'aw yiss!' high-five of this holiday.

So after another long hike back to the hotel, we set ourselves to reunite the colony, now spread out over several boxes and tubes, into a single container. The Formicas were too big and with way too many workers for a test tube, so we emptied our ant-juice bottle, identical to the one now holding queen Dobrogea. Forget the hiking or the digging, this is the part where things got really sweaty!

Back at our room, all nice and comfy (the hotel burning a dozen of trees worth of wood every day to keep the place heated), the Formica workers had warmed up too, doubling their escaping efforts and tripling their running speed.

I knew that these ants were fast, but seeing workers run across an entire queen-size bed in a few seconds instills a feeling of awe in an ant-enthusiast, immediately followed by despair trying to prevent them from disappearing on the floor or under the pillows. And then frustration as we tracked them with a test tube to scoop them up, getting a little bit too close too early (Formicas have good eyesight) and the ant easily dodging your attempt with a quick 90-degree turn.

The only worker that wasn't giving us any trouble was one that was probably eclosed (peeled from her cocoon) on her way back to the hotel. She was still as white as the sheets, feebly stepping around without much of an inkling of what was going on. Very gently we eased her into the bottle after the brood and the queen (who then carried her deeper into their toiletpaper hideout). Having these already inside at least calmed down the Formicas that were following next.

We did get a better look at the queen, now named Petra, after the lone rocks we found her under. The fact that the ladies didn't quite have enough red mascara on their thorax and the queen didn't have any, except a bit on the underside and on her legs, identified them as Formica cunicularia.

She's on fire! Not our queen though, this is actually a rufibarbis.

It was right in the middle of the colony reunion operation that I noticed that queen Dobrogea queen, inside the other bottle with the Myrmica deplanata, had gotten herself in a predicament and needed our immediate attention. The blog post I wrote about her earlier describe the chaos and mistakes that resulted from this Code Purple situation. In the end, very tired and very relieved, we did manage to get all the ants into their appropriate bottles.

All but one...

It is a testament to the exceptional escaping ability of the Formicas that the next day I found out that that of the bunch of workers I had mistakenly put into the Myrmica bottle, there was one still very much alive. She had been running around in the bottle, succesfully dodging about a hundred vicious Myrmicas for a whole night. It took her only five seconds after I unscrewed the cap to find her way out past a dozen Myrmica onto the outside of the glass, to then be promptly reunited with her family.

After all this, they were happy to just pile up in a corner and continue their hibernation (or at least content to wait until the temperature would drop to a nice chill again). This did result in some stubbornness when we got home and they were supposed to relocated to a proper test tube. But they did get with the program after a few days.

"This outworld wall looks comfy enough, tuck in girls!"

Sadly, you won't get to read about queen Petra and her girls again until spring next year as they are one of our first colonies to go into hiberation. But in the meantime I get to introduce a few new (Mediterranean) ants that we acquired after we got home from our Romania trip. This so we wouldn't go into ant-withdrawal with most of our colonies hibernating over the winter months.

Until next year!