Thursday, 20 July 2017

Flying Ant Day - The Reality

Tuesday morning saw the first Flying Ant swarm of the summer in the garden and also revealed that our resident Black Garden Ant lasius niger colony was actually nesting in the conservatory wall.

Flying Ant Day hit the headlines just a couple of weeks ago when masses of the same species interrupted the tennis at Wimbledon, and I've never read so much tripe in the days that followed from not just the National gutter press but local newspapers as well, from total misinformation to Oh My God We're All Going To Die, to actually printing the 10 Top Ways of Killing Ants, all ignorant and knee-jerk reaction to this (in my eyes) wonderful annual natural spectacle. It's no wonder that most of my ignoramus neighbours where I previously resided would cover the ground in so much white ant powder at first sight of swarming it looked like we'd had a snow storm in July.
Personally, I'm a bit of an ant-nerd,  I kept a pet colony in a glass formicarium when I was a lad, so just to set the record straight here are a few facts . . .  

The Black Garden Ant Lasius niger is one of those species which has adapted incredibly well to urban living, taking a particular liking to nesting under paving stones where undisturbed colonies can quietly establish themselves into a network of nests containing tens of thousands of workers, only a fraction of which will be seen foraging, so hiding their true number . . . until Flying Ant  Day.

Contrary to some newspaper reports, ants don't suddenly sprout wings when the summer becomes too hot and dry so they can fly off to establish nests where conditions are more to their liking, Flying Ant Day is the big event of the ants' year, if you like it's their 'Fiesta', the equivalent of the biggest annual human festival or celebration you can think of, their Rio Carnival, their Pamplona Bull Run, their Glastonbury, their Wimbledon even, though more important than all of those, as it's key to the species' survival.

Once the nest awakes from its state of torpor in the spring, the Queen starts egg-laying, and depending on the size and health of the colony, a proportionate number of winged 'kings and queens' are reared and kept underground. In lasius niger castes, the queens are maybe three times the size of the workers, and by late spring/early summer you will see piles or ridges of excavated soil along the cracks in the paving stones (or patio, or wherever else the nest is situated) which is the tell-tale sign that the nest is being expanded to create chambers to accommodate the developing giant queens and their smaller male counterparts.

The winged ants are purposely made ready to fly by the hottest time of year, this is how they reproduce, spread the gene pool, the success of the species depends on it.
On a hot, humid and calm day, the workers emerge first, running about as if in a frenzy, covering a wide area around the nest clearing it of danger, paving a safe as possible way for the next stage, the emergence from the nest of the winged Kings and Queens.
You may see a few false starts, if the weather changes during a nominate day the workers frenzy will build up but then gradually peter out, but in the right conditions there will be a spectacle like no other, the whole area will be covered in ants as practically the whole colony will be up on the surface for the first time, some of the winged royals will take off from the ground, others will climb to the highest point possible before taking to the air. Mating takes place in mid-air, but the precariousness of the event makes the large numbers involved a relevant one.

Many of the airborne queens won't find a mate and will remain infertile (they are weak flyers and are slaves to the elements, conditions need to be really calm). Others seem not to have had the rules explained, and shed their wings without flying or (presumably) mating and can be seen running around wingless, close to the nest.
It is a veritable feast for other animals, a few will be caught in spiders webs, but avian predators will take a large proportion of these protein-filled insects. On the ground the local blackbirds, sparrows, magpies, robins and a host of others will tuck in to a hearty meal in smash and grab raids, as stick around for more than a few seconds and they will be covered in biting worker ants.
In the air the hirundines, swifts, tits and even gulls will snap them up by the bucketful.
I witnessed this spectacle (massacre) every year at my old house, my greatest memory being of a band of swifts repeatedly circling the garden low and swooping in to take the ants just feet above the ground over and over again, I was standing by the corner of the house perfectly still with swifts whizzing by often between waist and head height, so close I could feel the rush of air from their wings as they sped past, a marvellous experience I'll never forget.
But back to Tuesday :

Mid-morning, I noticed a trickle of ants around one of the air-bricks on the conservatory
Note these are winged males, not much bigger than the workers

The trickle soon becomes a bit of a mob

The mob becomes a crowd, note the workers policing the event on the left

Now it's like a whistle is blown and the troops emerge from the trenches,
and as most will be massacred, not a bad comparison.

The numbers took me by surprise, I'd seen ants in small numbers throughout the spring
but hadn't traced the nest, now I know.

Not just the air-bricks, any crack in the brickwork saw another outpouring 

Even gaps in the UPVC saw more ants appearing as the frenzy upped its tempo

Out of the trenches they came, now the paving became part of the action

See the difference in size between the large potential queens and the tiny winged males

Part of an expansive 'kettle' of gulls gathered in the skies, obviously other nests
in the vicinity were swarming too, a flying buffet for the birds above, always a tell-tale sign
in the height of summer that the ants are swarming.

Once the new royals have flown, the workers (which also take a bashing on Flying Ant Day) disappear back underground, nest activity tails off and you'll hardly notice them again until the following spring, when the cycle repeats itself.
It's estimated that only 1 in 100 new queens will survive and successfully form a new colony, and you've heard the expression 'King for a day', well this is certainly true in the world of the ant, the males are bred for one purpose, to fertilise the new queens on FAD, most of them don't even get to do that such is the perilous nature of the day, and those that do, well their job is done, they have no other purpose, they simply expire once they've mated, the world of the ant is the ultimate sexual revolution, even the workers are infertile females.

So you see the pointlessness of the knee-jerk reaction. It's a special day (though larger colonies may need two, three or even more of these days to empty the nest of young royals), and once the ants have flown you won't see them in such numbers again until next year, so pouring buckets full of ant powder (or equivalent) on them won't eliminate them, they'll be back again same time next year regardless, and all that happens is the area is filled with poison, likely killing any invertebrate which comes into contact with it, and anything feeding on the dead ants (birds, hedgehogs, rodents) ingests the poison too, it's indiscriminate and unnecessary, Best to just shut your doors and windows, let them fly and embrace the spectacle, it's one of nature's wonders, it may look like an invasion but it's just a one day show the whole colony must attend, try to look at the bigger picture, live and let live.

Here endeth the sermon.

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