Author Neil Fletcher
Monday 11th July saw millions of flying ants taking off on their mating flights right across Sussex.
The black garden ant (Lasius niger) produces large, winged queens at this time of year, which incredibly synchronise their mating flights with thousands of other colonies all on the same afternoon. The smaller winged males join the queens and mate with them in mid-air, then the queens return to earth, lose their wings and seek a new site to set up a new colony of ants. Most queens are not successful, but those that are may live 10-15 years laying eggs for the new colony.
The spectacle rivals the mass synchronised spawning of corals in tropical reefs, but quite how the ant colonies know when to blast off is still a bit of a mystery. The weather and barometric pressure clearly plays a part, but is there also some chemical or other message passed from colony to colony. The synchronisation ensures that there is a greater chance of succesful matings with ants of different colonies, and provides a sudden ‘glut’ for a short period so that predators like swifts, swallows and gulls are unable to eat many of them before they’re all gone again.