Dear Readers, just as I was leaving Mum and Dad’s house in Dorset last week, I happened to glance down at the path. From a crack in the concrete black ants were bubbling out like lava. All of them seemed agitated – the small workers dashing about haphazardly, antennae waving, whilst much bigger winged ants made their way to the tops of the grass stems before launching themselves into flight. A few smaller winged ants were also about, loitering at the edge of the action. In short, it was what we as a family always call ‘The Day of the Ants’.
I first noticed this phenomenon when I was a child and lived in a tiny house in Stratford. On a humid, hot day in August, when we had the front and back door open to get a breeze in spite of the smell from the glue factory on the Carpenter’s Road about a mile away, our living room was suddenly inundated by ants. I noticed some climbing up the wall, some on the window frame, some crossing the floor. With each new one spotted I can still remember the growing prickle of fear.
‘There’s another one!’ I squeaked, spotting a particularly fat ant walking above the armchair.
In truth, there were probably only a couple of dozen. However, much as I loved insects outside the house, I had the feeling of being overwhelmed, as if it might never stop. Maybe more and more ants would come in until they coated everything in a glistening black layer. I could feel the hysteria rising.
‘And another one!’ I shrieked, pointing with a trembling finger.
My mother knew exactly what to do.
‘Don’t be so silly!’ she said, sharply. ‘They’re only ants. They’ll go soon’.
I was a serious child who prized herself on being ‘grown-up’. Silly had the same effect as a bucket of water over the head. I pulled myself together, and found that I was actually more intrigued than scared. What was going on here?
This phenomenon is known as a ‘nuptial flight’. In the nest, the large winged ‘virgin queen’ ants and the smaller winged males may have been waiting around for the correct weather conditions for weeks. Their development was probably a result of changes in the chemical signals produced by the resident queen – maybe the colony had reached a size where it was desirable to split, or maybe the current queen has reached the end of her life. But when the air is hot, still and humid, these winged ants will leave the nest, in order to mate and, if luck is with them, found a new colony. Often, many colonies in the same area ‘swarm’ on the same day, but it doesn’t happen in just one 24-hour period – a nest may swarm more than once, or not at all, and it will happen at different times in different parts of the country. So, The Day of the Ants IS really The Days of the Ants.
The ants pour out of their home nests in great numbers – as with the hatching of sea turtles, the result is to overwhelm any predators, who, try as they might, can’t kill them all. And what predators! Everything from other ant species, spiders and beetles to swifts, house martins, crows and starlings will eat these fat, nutritious insects. They are a late summer protein bonanza, especially for birds like swallows, who have a long journey ahead of them.
Once the females are away from their home nest, they produce a pheromone to attract males – this is to avoid inbreeding with their ‘brothers’. They mate in flight, and this is the only flight that they will ever make. The males die off very quickly, and the females lose their wings when they return to the ground, often biting them off themselves. I remember the gutters in Stratford being peppered with the shards of torn, discarded wings, as if someone had smashed the windows of a doll’s house.
The new queens, virgin no longer, will now look for somewhere to make their nest. Although nobody likes ants in their cupboards or sugar bowl, they help to aerate the soil, and can be fearsome predators of other small insects (though their habit of farming aphids doesn’t always endear them to gardeners). If she is successful, the female ant will retire below the ground and will lay eggs for up to fifteen years, without ever seeing the sun again. All of the new worker ants that emerge are a result of her single mating on that late summer day.
When I came home from shopping a few years ago, I noticed that the queen ants were starting to emerge from the pavement outside my house. Most of the time I only see the ants when they’re carrying aphids from one part of my buddleia to another – they love the honeydew that the green and blackfly produce, and look after them as if they were little cows. They will even try to protect them from marauding ladybirds, though the ladybirds usually win. But on this day they were everywhere, pouring out of the gaps between the paving stones. I went inside, put my shopping away and went back out, to see two small boys with fly swats in their hands having a great time killing the queen ants outside my house. They looked up when I opened the door.
‘What are you doing?’ I asked.
‘We are killing these flies’ said one.
‘They aren’t flies’, I said. ‘Look again’.
‘They look like big ants with wings’, volunteered the older boy.
‘They are big ants with wings’, I said. ‘They’re queens. They are flying off to find a new home, and when they find a new one they will go underground, and they will never, ever fly again.’
‘I didn’t know that’, said the older boy, shifting from foot to foot, though whether through embarrassment or guilt I have no idea.
‘So are you going to leave them alone now?’ I asked.
‘I s’pose so’, he said. ‘Bye’.
And with that the pair of them ran up the street, no doubt spooked by the mad lady, and the ants could go about their dispersal with only the usual predators to contend with. These were not bad children – they were only playing, and like most youngsters they were probably imitating their parents. I do believe that if children understand the stories of the animals that surround them, they are much less likely to randomly do them harm, and that goes for the rest of us, too.