With Editor Anna enjoying a well-earned summer holiday, Deputy Editor Emma guest writes this week's blog.
If there’s one nature experience in life I never want to repeat, it’s cycling home from work on flying ant day. The air was thick with them buzzing vaguely and, unable to dodge their hoards, I ended up covered. They got caught in my hair, stuck to my skin, they got in my eyes and mouth and nose. By the time I got home I had to change and shower, and I could still feel their creepy feet on me for hours.
The ants fly. Photo: iStock
Gross was the word I found myself using most when talking about this natural phenomenon at work the next day. And my sentiments were reciprocated by the world’s media. Words such as ‘attack’, ‘swarm, ‘plague’ and ‘invasion’ littered the news headlines that appeared when I idly typed “flying ant day” into Google. And it got me thinking…
Sharks featured on the cover of Wingbeat July 2017
In our July issue of Wingbeat magazine, Phoenix member Louise Broatch wrote an informative and inspiring piece about the world’s sharks. She made the valuable point that animals we human don’t like, or fear, or find inconvenient get a bad press, and as such we ignore the fascinating things about them and they don’t get the protection they deserve. This is true of sharks, and it’s true of our October Wingbeat cover star slugs, could it be true of flying ants to?
So I did some research, and discovered a recent study conducted by Professor Adam Hart of the University of Gloucestershire and the Royal Society of Biology. Here are five fascinating things I learned about flying ants:
1. Flying ant day is not a thing
Colonies of ants (largely black ants, Lasius niger) don’t exhibit any significant geographical coordination when it comes to taking to the skies – one garden may see flying ants on one day, with neighbours seeing them weeks or even months later. But weather is confirmed to be absolutely critical for ants to emerge. They will only come out if it is warmer than 13 degrees and when wind speeds are less than 6.3 metres per second.
2. This is a nuptial flight
Ants emerge and fly for the sole purpose of mating. It is only the young queen ants (‘princess ants’) and males that have wings. They take off and fly as far as they can to be sure of mating with a new colony. They mate on the wing and the males die shortly after.
3. It’s a hard life for a queen
After mating, the queen ants drop to the ground and chew off their own wings. They then travel around looking for a suitable nest site. They dig a nest, lay their eggs and won’t eat until their first brood of workers have hatched to go and collect food. They can store the sperm collected in the nuptial flight for years to birth future generations of workers, and can live as queen for over a decade!
4. Ants are excellent weather forecasters
The ants can tell if the short-term weather is liable to change. If it’s set to improve, becoming warmer and calmer, they’ll wait, but if it’s only going to get worse they’ll seize the opportunity and take off.
5. There are a lot of ants
There can be flying ants on as many as 96% of the days between the start of June and the end of September. Ants take off in droves in order to increase the likelihood of some of the queens being successful. the majority will be eaten by predators, killed by changing weather conditions or environmental hazards, or will simply starve. But some do make it, which is good news because ants are vital to our environment – aerating soil, recycling nutrients and returning detritus back to the earth.
Next time the ants decide to fly in my local area, I’ll give this amazing nature spectacle all the admiration it deserves, but I think I’ll take the bus.
My findings are all quoted from the Royal Society of Biology survey, but please comment below and let us know if you have more!