Last night I had to fight my way through a cloud of flying ants to get to my front door. They were emerging in their hundreds from a nest in the garden before flying off in the same direction towards the sun. Best get indoors I thought, and batten down the hatches so they don’t colonise the house, and also there may be a storm on the way.
During research for the Can Insects Predict The Weather blog I learnt that active ants can be an indicator of an impending storm. Ants are said to be active when it’s balmy and muggy, and are likely to take flight before a storm.
But wives tales or not, there are people at Rentokil who have studied insects for many, many years and will know the answer to any insect based query. First thing this morning I quizzed our Entomologist, Matt Green, about the flying Lasius niger (black or garden ant) phenomenon in my garden. These are the wise words he had to say:
Why do some ants have wings, whilst other ants are their usually crawly self?
The winged ants are sexually reproductive, the unwinged ants are sterile female workers. Different eggs follow different developmental paths depending on environmental factors that may be manipulated by the existing colony.
What will happen to the nest? Will the non-flying ants just stay there?
Yes, and their queen too. Lasius niger queens have been known to live for over 10 years.
Where are the flying ants going?
They are mating. It’s a ‘nuptial flight’. They fly, mate, then the males die shortly afterwards and the fertalised females discard their wings and reabsorb their flight muscles.
Why were they heading to the sun?
It’s a mating flight- the males and females are all orientating themselves around a single reference point.
If I get a flying ant in my house what should I do?
Not much…? If you get two, then they might mate and the female might find a crevice to start a new nest. there’s no reason to start throwing pesticides around until you have a problem though, otherwise you’ll drive yourself paranoid.
And, finally, something I have always wondered… How do ants turn hard soil into powder?
L. niger colonies have been recorded excavating over 850Kg of soil per year (click to view this cool paper) and have a complex effect on the physical properties of the soil they live in. To oversimplify things a little, in relatively dry conditions they dry the soil even further which reduces soil particle adhesion and makes it more dusty.
Journey to the Ants by Bert Holldobler is the place to start with ant biology and read more of E.O Wilson’s work if you like it.
Thanks Matt! I am now better informed on why ants fly. I wonder if it will rain tonight?