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Sunday 21 September 2014

Flying ants on the wing for nuptial flight

Published 30/07/2013 | 05:42

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Winged Black Garden Ants preparing to take wing on their nuptial flight.

Ants don't normally have wings but the very common Black Garden Ants do have long wings at this time of year. Winged males and females patiently wait on the ground until local weather conditions are right before taking off in their thousands on their maiden nuptial flights. Heat coupled with high humidity in the afternoon appear to be factors that trigger eruptions.

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Once the ants are airborne they emit a chemical signal. When the chemical scent is picked up by other ants on the ground they too take flight and emit more chemical causing a chain reaction resulting in a synchronised eruption of thousands upon thousands if not millions of ants.

The males and virgin queens mate while in flight the mass nuptial event often providing a bonanza for feeding birds. Circling Black-headed Gulls are often the first indication to the nature watcher that the ants are swarming. Once the females have mated they land back on the ground, discard their wings and look for a place to nest. The males only contribution to family life is to fertilise the females' eggs so once the nuptial flight is over they die.

The young queen digs a tunnel under a stone, seals the entrance and lays her first eggs in a chamber at the bottom of the tunnel. She doesn't eat while she tends the eggs and rears her young. She normally survives on digested protein from the flight muscles of her discarded wings; if starvation threatens she may be forced to eat some of her eggs to survive.

As her eggs hatch she feeds her tiny, maggot-like offspring. As they mature the larvae enter a cocoon stage before finally emerging as young ants. The youngsters break the seal on the tunnel and got outside to forage. They bring in food for the exhausted queen, tend her, tidy and extend the nest and take over the management of the rapidly expanding colony.

All of the young are sexless workers (technically sterile females) whose role in life is to tend the egg-laying queen, extend the tunnels, care for the larvae and cocoons and generally facilitate an exponential rise in the colony's population.

If the colony thrives and grows, after several years of producing sexless workers the queen lays eggs that give rise to males and fertile females. And when local weather conditions are just right these youngsters join others from other nests on a nuptial flight and the whole process starts all over again.

Wexford People

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