Then something in my peripheral vision made me leap over a few bricks. I turned to inspect what I’d thought I’d seen.
Sure enough, there were three growing ant swarms on the path. And as I expected, when I looked more closely at them, I found winged ants among them.
Among the eusocial ants, only the reproductive individuals have wings. Throughout most of the year, the colony produces wingless worker ants—females who don’t ever reproduce, but instead care for their younger sisters, and feed and defend the colony. In late summer, in response to some environmental signal (often rain), all the colonies in an area simultaneously produce winged ants—both males and females.
Entomology textbooks dryly say the winged ants fly off in search of mates, but from my perspective, having watched winged ants emerge for over 45 years now, the colony throws a huge party for the winged ants before they go.
On “Emergence Day”, an ant nest swarms with activity—not just inside, where it’s always busy—but also out on the surface. Winged and wingless ants pour out of the nest and mingle in the sunshine, sometimes for hours before the winged ants finally take flight. I like to think they’re having a little bachelor/bachelorette party for the potential brides and grooms.
When the winged ants take off, the wingless ones retreat to the nest. Their brothers and sisters will never return. If they are lucky, they’ll find a mate. The males, once they’ve mated, won’t live long. Their job is done, and they are easy prey for birds, spiders, and other predators.
The mated females, if they escape predators themselves, will fly to a favourable nest spot, break off their own wings (they’re not needed anymore), and begin to dig. The small nest each excavates will be home to her first offspring, who will enlarge the nest and care for the next batch of eggs the new queen lays.
A queen ant will mate only once. From this mating, she will parcel out sperm for her entire life (up to 30 years for some species!) to fertilize the eggs she lays.
So the ant swarms you see on the sidewalk are serious business. Step carefully, please!