Saturday 18 January 2020

Millions of ants take to the skies 'earlier than usual' as balmy conditions continue

A swarm of flying ants in north Dublin in search for a mate in this ‘nuptial flight’ ritual that usually doesn’t happen until July 20, Photo: Adrian Weckler
A swarm of flying ants in north Dublin in search for a mate in this ‘nuptial flight’ ritual that usually doesn’t happen until July 20, Photo: Adrian Weckler

Paul Melia

Flying ants are enjoying an early summer of love - but the public may not be too enamoured.

The balmy weather of recent weeks, coupled with a lack of wind, has made for perfect conditions for an annual mating ritual as millions of the insects undergo a 'nuptial flight' in search of suitable partners.

Zoology professor John Breen, who recently retired from the University of Limerick, said if flying ants were being seen, then the ritual is starting around two weeks early. Millions of the insects usually take to the skies in late July every year, but they are doing so earlier this year, with our picture capturing members of a swarm in north Dublin.

"It's usually around July 20 or later," said Prof Breen. "We're having a balmy summer with low wind for a long time now, so if they're flying, it's about two weeks early."

Ant colonies have a single queen, which lives for around three to five years, Prof Breen said. Colonies typically contain between 5,000 and 15,000 workers. The ants commonly seen in gardens and in buildings are workers, all of which are female. Their job is to gather food and help manage the colony, and they only live for around a month.

The swarms that take to the sky are made up of young virgin queens and males, with queens leaving to form their own nests, hence the 'nuptial flight'.

The huge numbers taking flight are needed because so many will be eaten by predators including birds, or will die, so large numbers increase the chance of reproducing. The swarms are timed to coincide with other colonies, and the insects mate on the wing, with queens generally mating with multiple partners.

Both fall to the ground after the act. The males' only purpose is to mate with new queens, and they die within a couple of days after serving their purpose.

On landing, the queens discarded their wings, generally by biting them off, Prof Breen said, before setting up a new nest.

"They fly out and mate. The young queens are bigger than the workers, and bite off their own wings. The males have one role, to mate, and then they die," he said.

He said that queens live for between three and five years, but have been known to live for longer under controlled conditions.

"Some of the oldest insects kept in semi-captivity have been queen ants. They mate once in their lives and store sperm. There are documented instances of a queen ant laying eggs in her 24th year. Three, four or five years is more usual."

Nests are typically found in lawns, flower beds and underneath stones, but also in cavity walls of properties. Ants perform an important role in nature, turning and aerating the soil, which allows water and oxygen to reach plants. They also eat other insects, while providing a food source for birds.

But they can also be a nuisance if they enter homes looking for food. Experts say to avoid an infestation it's important to clean up food and liquid spills, store food in airtight containers and seal cracks and crevices around doors and window frames.

Irish Independent

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