Love it or loath it, It is impossible to ignore the fascinating spectacle of ants teeming out onto our urban pavements and garden’s and taking to the sky’s.
In fact there is not one specific ‘flying ant day’. Flying ants also known as alates are seen most commonly in July but can be seen anytime between June and September.
This year warm weather in the south of the country lead to swarms so impressive that on the 17th of July the Met Office picked them up on their radar. (See the Met Office Twitter account to see the flying ants on their radar.)
Who are the Flying Ants?
Flying ants are the young queens and the males of the colony. The most commonly spotted flying ants in the UK are black ants, the species Lasius niger.
Ants live a social lifestyle as a colony in a nest. The ants you see through the year are female worker ants. They are sisters each with a specialized job within the colony. When the colony is mature the queen will lay eggs which will develop into winged virgin queens and males. The larger ants you will see with wings are the young female queens, and the smaller ones the males. When the conditions are right the winged queens (princesses) and the males (drones), leave the nest to mate with ants from other colonies. Mating takes place in the air in what is called a nuptial flight. The males job is then done and they will die shortly after the flight. The queen will then chew off her wings and find a suitable site to start her own colony. After laying her eggs the young queen will stay in her new nest tending to her brood, not even leaving to eat. When her first set of daughters have matured they will go out and find food for the now weak and hungry queen. The queen can survive for 15 years and will continue to lay eggs, remarkably all fertilized as a result of that one nuptial flight.
When should I expect to see them?
On warm and still days. Especially if the temperature is higher than the previous day!
A citizen science project run by the royal society of biology and Professor Adam Hart of the University of Gloucester collected more than 13,000 observations of flying ants seen by members of the public from across the UK during the summer months of 2012, 2013 and 2014. All the observations of flying ants were recorded when the local temperature was above 13°C and the wind speed below 14mph. Every day that the temperature was over 25°C flying ants were seen. Flying takes energy, but in warm and still conditions the ants can use less energy, which then increases the chance of a successful nuptial flight. Incredibly, these amazing creatures also seemed to be able to identify when the weather was getting better, with more flying ants being seen if the weather was warner than the day before. (See the Flying Ant Survey for full details).
Why do we see so many at the same time?
When local conditions are right swarms of ants may be seen, with many nests ‘flying’ at the same time over large areas. There are a few possible explanations for this. One being safety in numbers, large swarms of ants are at a lower risk from predators. Another advantage of swarming is that there is a higher chance of meeting a mate, and that the mate will be from a different colony. This increases the success rate of the nuptial flight and encourages diversity within the population.
Find out more:
- Natural History Museum: Flying Ant Day
- Royal Society of Biology: Flying Ant Survey
- BBC Key Stage 2: Life Cycle of an Ant
- Hart A. G. et al. The spatial distribution and environmental triggers of any mating flights: using citizen-science data to reveal national patterns. Ecography, 41 (2019) 877-888. Goulson D. THE GARDEN JUNGLE or Gardening to save the planet. UK. Jonathan Cape 2019. Ants in my Plants p149-165.