What are flying ants?
Flying ants are of utmost importance to the ant colony. They are the crown jewel of the colony’s reproduction strategy, and a new generation of them leaves the nest every year to mate and found new colonies. They are the new queens and males, and they coordinate their flight with the help of weather and season.
When the ant society has grown into stability it starts the process of producing fertile offspring in the form of flying ants. Since the worker caste is almost completely barren (and only consist of females) the colony needs to produce special ants for the sake of reproduction – new queens and males – also called flying ants (or alates). This caste requires meticulous care and feeding to develop and is, for the mother colony, merely an expense. Though through the eyes of evolution itself, this is the most important task a colony can spend it’s resources on. Hence, the reward is an enormous one, securing the future of coming generations of ants. To be able to conquer vast areas of land, the flying ants are equipped with a large set of wings.
Normally, the colony queen lays fertilized eggs that are never allowed to fully develop into new queens. These eggs become female and sterile workers. If the queen decides not to fertilise the egg with seed from the nuptial flight, it will develop into a male. But what is it that decides that an ant will become a worker and not a queen?
Flying ants of the species Lasius Nearcticus. The image shows two unmated queens, their cast evident by their big abdomens. South Bristol, New York (USA). Photo: Alex Wild.
How are flying ants born?
When a colony has reached the age and maturity to produce fertile offspring it will, mostly by spring, be filled with flying ants. The new queens and males hatch from their pupaes with a set of royal wings made for flying. From that day they will walk around the nest, waiting for the big day to come. It is uncommon that the alates help with the colony duties.
Flying ants and the "nuptial flights"
When the day finally arrives, the nuptial flight can begin and the flying ants can set sail upwards. The day and time of this event depends on the species. The common black garden ant Lasius niger is known to take flight somewhere between June and August, although they prefer hot rain-free days with thundery weather in the air. They coordinate the flight through small variations in weather, wind and temperature, and when the conditions are just right all of the species’ colonies in the area are likely to take flight at the same time.
The nuptial flights commonly start on the rooftops of the nests. One by one the flying ants leaps into the air and out into the world to meet up with others of their kind. They then mate and move on to the next partner. When the male has fulfilled his task his life is over. He will die shortly after the mating and leave his queens behind to found the future colonies of his children.
The greatest challenges for flying ants
Compared to the males, the journey of the young queens has just begun. After the mating follows a perilous test when the small female must find a good spot to found her colony. The vast majority of queens die within hours from leaving their birth nest. Predators and other ants are a few of the dangerous obstacles they face, but they must also be careful of nature itself in the form of drowning or overheating. This is the reason that ant species send out thousands of thousands of flying ants – in the hopes that one or two of them might succeed. (2) They simply need more flying ants than can ever be killed by predators or accidents.
After finding the right spot, the queen cut of her wings (she won’t need them anymore) and starts the excavation of her first chamber. When it is ready she closes it up and retreats to laying eggs and waiting for them to hatch. The young flying ant is no more – a queen is born.
1. Per Douwes, Johan Abenius, Björn Cederberg, Urban Wahlstedt (2012) Nationalnyckeln “Steklar: Myror-getingar. Hymenoptera: Formicidae-Vespidae” (Swedish)
2. Bert Holldobler & Edward O. Wilson (1990) “The Ants“