The Heathland Conservation Crew employed at Core Hill, Sidmouth, Devon…
This summer millions of ants will erupt from holes in the ground and take to the air. But what’s their mission? Are these just flights of fancy?
This summer look out on warm, still, humid days, for clouds of flying ants as they rise from the ground to take to the skies. The ants in question are usually black ants, and as they emerge from holes in lawns and cracks in pavements, they have one thing in mind: to mate.
The clouds of ants are made up of males whose only purpose is to meet and mate with a queen ant. The female ants that take to the air are newly born queens. Look carefully at an ‘ant cloud’ this summer using binoculars and you may spot that among the millions a few ants which are much bigger than their airborne compatriots. These are the queens.
Ant eruptions are often accompanied by feverish excitement from swifts, house martins and gulls, all hoping to grab a meal. Separate ant colonies synchronise their emergences, triggered by the optimum weather conditions. This not only gives queens the best chance of meeting males from other nests, but it also overwhelms predators, giving individual ants a higher chance of survival.
What happens next?
After their nuptial flight, males usually survive no longer than a day or two. For the queens, however, their flight is the beginning of a much longer life, sometimes up to 15 years or more. On landing, females lose their wings and begin the search for a suitable nest site. They do this by excavating an underground chamber in which to lay eggs.
This is the start of a new ant colony which may grow to between 10,000 workers and their queen. Her eggs hatch into larva, which then pupate to become adults. Most of these will be female worker ants and it is these which you see in your garden searching for food to sustain their colony. In time the queen will also produce male ants and a few queens, and it is these which will take to the air to begin the process of reproduction once more.
Where to see flying ants
The spectacle of flying ants can be seen virtually anywhere during summer. Black ants are very adaptable and can be found in a huge range of urban and rural locations – if you have a garden you are likely to have black ants.
Often the first thing to spot will be the activity of gulls or swifts circling as they begin to pick off the ants as they rise into the air. The whole spectacle can last an hour or more.
Hot summer days with little wind and no rain seem to act as a trigger to ants taking to the wing.