This week we had an emergence of nuptial ants. Most people don’t know what that is and I didn’t either until I saw it happening in my driveway one day years ago. Since that day, when I see it happening I stop whatever I am doing and watch in admiration. I give them a little wish, too, for a successful and productive colony.
But if you could see it happening for yourself, you might not be so calm. It is rather startling, especially if you have never seen it before. Little winged insects come spewing out of the ground, like silent fireworks; hundreds of flying bugs scattering in every possible direction, relentlessly shooting out from somewhere. At first you don’t know what they are because the air is suddenly so filled with this cloud that all you want to do is take cover. If you happen to be standing nearby, say, talking on the phone, all of a sudden your hair and nostrils and ears are filled with these fluttery creatures. You scream into the phone, “I’m being attacked. I’ll call you back. If I live.” Then you run out of the cloud and wait, still swatting at the air and vigorously shaking your head like a dog.
At our house we’ve seen it so many times, now, that we no longer run for cover. In fact this week when it happened I noticed we simply covered our lemonade glasses with a napkin to keep the little critters out of our drinks. If you are not standing right in the middle of the cloud when the emergence erupts, it’s not so traumatic; it’s another fascinating event in the outdoor world.
What is this crazy emergence? It is mating time for ants and they are emerging from their parent colony to form a new colony. The weather conditions dictate when it will happen, usually after a rain that has softened the earth, but not during a rain when their flight is hampered. Although you do not necessarily see what is happening, for most species it is the virgin queens and males emerging from a hole in the earth. Once airborne, the queens mate with several of the males and are impregnated (thus the term “nuptial”). If successful, the queen then lands, loses her wings, and submerges back into the earth to build the new colony. The males live such a short time thereafter that not only do they never eat, but they never even develop jaws for eating.
Not all ants have this exact sequence. And it’s different in different locales. In some locations this happens so universally on one or two days that they actually call it “Flying Ant Day.” But here in the moderate climes of northern California we get it several times in a day, sometimes several times in a week, and in both shoulder seasons of spring and fall. We watched two separate emergences last Saturday, a very mild spring day in April; but we have also observed it happening on a mild October day. These ants are harvester ants.
There is almost always some opportunistic creature enjoying the emergence. The western fence lizard pictured here is on our 25 foot rock wall. When the emergence began, the spray of ants was in the shade. The lizard just sat there and we wondered why he was not participating in lizard paradise. But he’s a cold-blooded reptile early in the morning, and probably couldn’t leave his rejuvenating warming station in the sun until he could get his little limbs working. Seemed a shame that he was so close to nirvana but unable to engage. Then moments later, we discovered that he had worked it out perfectly. He had moved to a strategically sunny spot where there was an endless supply of fresh, juicy ants practically flying right onto his sticky tongue.
Hours later and over 300 feet away, we saw a different emergence. It was easy to see because it was a yellow-rumped warbler, pictured here in his breeding plumage, who was the lucky recipient. His erratic hawking flight was quite a spectacle. He would perch in a Manzanita bush close to the ground (already a risk due to ground predators), then shoot off the branch, effortlessly flip upside down, grab the flying ant in mid-air, and return to the branch for his feast. He did this every few seconds for a quarter of an hour, then rested high up in a nearby oak.
The world of ants is extremely complex. Their successful social structure is baffling to us humans, we who have not yet figured out how to all get along. Entomologists and myrmecologists (those who study ants) have been fascinated by these beings for centuries. With over 14,000 ant species and subspecies, there is a lot to study, and still many questions to be answered. There are also many earth citizens like myself who have become fascinated with ant antics.
In the spring there is a lot more activity in the waking outdoors. If you water an area you haven’t watered in a while, for example, you might see ants going crazy, moving little white dots. That’s their eggs. They’re relocating with your emergence.