Nuptial Ants

This is a spring nature phenomenon that I find fascinating: the nuptial ant flight. It is subtle and short-lived…and a wonder to witness.

It looks like a lot of small moths flying in random directions. But on closer look, it is ants with wings. Thousands of them. And they are all emerging from the same spot in the ground.

If you look closely at the bug on the lizard’s mouth, below, you see it is an ant with wings. You can also see how the lizard has strategically positioned himself at the feast, all around him are the winged ants.

The ants with wings, also known as alates, have been selected by their ant society to perpetuate the colony. There are thousands of them because many of them will end up in a predator’s mouth, like this lucky lizard’s.

It is an important phase in insect reproduction and occurs in ants, termites, and some bee species. (I have only witnessed it in ants.)

More info: antkeepers.com

Here is a photo of a carpenter ant nest on a normal day. Worker ants doing their job. Every black dot is a busy ant.

And here is a close-up of a nest hole.

Down below and out of our sight is a highly organized ant colony, millions of ants. Their social system is elaborate with various castes of workers, soldiers and more.

It’s a different scene on the Big Day when the colony releases winged fertile males (drones) and females (queens) to mate, form new colonies. They come shooting out of the hole by the thousands.

On earth we have 22,000 different species of ants. One of the world’s leading experts on ants, E. O. Wilson, estimated that the total biomass of all the ants in the world is approximately equal to the total biomass of the entire human race.

The success of their species is attributed to their social organization and drive to collectively work to support the colony.

On the day of their nuptial flight, a day they have been building toward, the winged reproductive ants leave the nest in a powerful pursuit.

It is a perilous journey. Predators will gobble up many of them.

Lizards have long tongues they can rapidly flick out and snatch up prey, and this little guy was very practiced at the art.

Here you can see his tongue. And his little legs are stretched out in his feeding frenzy.

I have seen so many of these emergences that when I see warblers or swallows or other creatures behaving erratically and in large numbers, I stop whatever I am doing and investigate.

The emergence is fast. The flying ants come spewing out of a hole, sometimes a crack in a rock…and in a few minutes it is over.

Lizards scurry, birds swoop — all the wildlife get lined up to partake of this delicious opportunity.

Here in Northern California I have seen it the most in April, often a day or so after it has rained. But I’ve also seen it on warm fall days. It’s different for every ant species.

Last week we were enjoying tea on the deck when swallows started congregating just above us.

On most spring or summer days we see one violet-green swallow, or a pair, in some nest activity.

That day there were 20 or 30 swallows within minutes– circling and diving and air-catching the flying ants. This photo shows numerous swallows in pursuit; the ants are so tiny they cannot be seen here.

Usually the event is so chaotic that you wouldn’t guess it was an ant thing, especially since it is airborne and involves so many wings. What you see is a flurry of diaphanous wings fluttering in hundreds of different directions.

The emergence is partly based on weather conditions: not too windy or cold, and wet but not too wet.

Every black dot on these rocks is an alate or winged ant.

It never lasts more than ten minutes.

When the flying ants are no longer spewing from the ground, the predators leave, the show is over.

The males mate with the queens and their life is over. The queen chews off her wings and begins the excavation of her new chamber where she will begin laying eggs.

What a species!

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

66 thoughts on “Nuptial Ants

  1. Wow. I have never even heard of ants with wings and had no idea what I would be reading about when I saw the title of the posting. Thanks, Jet, for sharing with us this “behind the scene” look at a phenomenon that most of us have never seen and are unlikely to have understood what was going on it we had seen it. It is amazing how different species have such varies methods of ensuring their survival.

    • I am truly delighted to introduce this wild and wonderful event with you, Mike. You are outdoors so much photographing all kinds of miracles that I have the feeling you will see it happening soon, now that you know about it. I really enjoyed your lovely comment, thank you.

  2. A fascinating story of nature well-illustrated! Ants are so numerous that most give them no attention, but what an amazing social structure they have. I mostly notice alates here in the early fall, usually during an evening meal out on the deck! We have to move inside until the storm is over. πŸ˜‰

    • Great to hear you have seen the alates, Eliza. Yes, I agree, they do have amazing social structures. I liked hearing when you have seen them, and have no doubt that you had to move the dinner scene indoors “until the storm” was over. It’s quite a brouhaha. My warmest thanks for your contribution.

  3. Oh wow! I’ve never heard of this or witnessed it. Now, I’ll know what to look for. How incredible is the ant world!! The images are wonderful and that final image of the Violet green Swallow is lovely showing off its colors and how it got its name.

    • You are a frequent outdoor adventurer so I am guessing you will see this scene sometime soon, Deborah. It’s really difficult to photograph because they’re spewing everywhere. Thanks so much for this wonderful comment.

  4. Wonderful words and images! That is one very happy lizard…
    If an alien life form arrived on earth and was looking for a well developed society, I think they’d consider ants and other insect life to be the dominant species, numerically and in terms of being in tune with the overall natural environment.
    Thanks, Jet!

  5. 22,000 species – wow that is mind boggling. We have fire ants here and they are not pleasant but very protective. Guess that’s why we have armadillos. Very fascinating !!! The fire ants have gray mounds – same as the sand but another ants mound is light brown. Wonder where their light brown sand comes from.

    • My guess is the light brown sand is made light brown by the ants, they work it. Though fire ants are no fun, armadillos are pretty cool and great that they eat the fire ants. Thanks very much, Bill, always a pleasure to have you stop by.

  6. Dear Jet,
    thank you very much for your explanation of the winged ants and sharing these pictures. We see that sometimes in our garden when the sun is warming up ant’s nest. Here we have the birds just waiting for a big meal.
    Wishing you a wonderful weekend
    The Fab Four of Cley
    πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚

    • Wonderful to hear you have seen the winged ants in your garden, Fab Four. It’s interesting how the birds line up “waiting for a big meal,” isn’t it? Thanks so much for stopping by, sending smiles your way.

  7. Amazing! What a great post Jet, and what great captures Athena. I’ve learned a lot … and will keep my eyes open for unusual bird activity. πŸ’›πŸœπŸœπŸœπŸ¦Ž

    • I’m glad there are lots of lizards in your backyard, too, Jan. Not only does our No. Calif. lizard eat the ants, they also eat the ticks. Yay for lizards. My warmest thanks.

    • Insects are so important to have on our planet, as you know, Sherry. I’m looking forward to seeing your bugs soon. Thanks very much, wonderful to “see” you today.

  8. Great post, Jet. Having been raised in Northern California, I witnessed the same phenomena a number times. I also saw red ants take off from just off our deck in Oregon. And yes, the birds were gathered in force. I can add a bit to you tale, however. Termites do the same thing but fly at night, at least in Africa. When I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia, I woke up one night thinking it was raining on our tin roof. Nothing unusual about that. But then it seem to be raining against our screened window. “What the…” I thought, slipping out of bed and heading out to our porch. I had forgotten and left the porch light on. It was after the first rain of the rainy season and the termites were flying in the thousands, hitting our screen just below the light. That in itself would have fascinating, but just below the screen on our porch was our cat, Rasputin, four neighborhood dogs and maybe a dozen toads scarfing down termites as fast as they could eat. It was a peaceable kingdom, except for the termites. The story doesn’t end there. The next morning at my African History class I taught at the high school, about half of my students showed up with cans full of the still squirming insects. And they were popping them into their mouths as fast as the toads, dogs and cat. “Want to try some, Mr. Mekemson,” they asked laughing. “The meat is sweet-o!” I not so politely answered “No!’ and the class roared. It turns out that out in the villages, tribal people would light fires to attract the termites and them dry them for a future food source. I did try them in chop, Liberian food. –Curt

  9. The ants are interesting insects. Extremely organized. It has ranks of importance and their nests are incredible., they have crops of moss, “cattle” (Aphids they milk, nurseries, warriors, workers, bodyguards.. Of course they are many types of ants as you know. I had my own experiences with them in the Amazon Rainforest. In Georgia, I saw once, a Velvet Ant. Check that one out. And in Peru I saw the ones that fly just like the ones you have in California. I loved your post, my friend. as I always do. Thank you. πŸ™‚

    • Lovely to have you visit, H.J., and share your ant knowledge. I remember well your terrifying encounter with the ants in the Amazon. I enjoyed hearing all the different types of which you are familiar and I, too, am familiar with the Velvet Ant. Spending time in the Amazon has heightened yours and my experiences with ants, where they can be so ferocious. It’s a fascinating world, the ant world, but best observed from a safe place. Always a joy to “see” you, thank you, H.J.

    • Thank you, Cindy, I’m glad you enjoyed the nuptial ant post. For as familiar as you are with the wildlife at The Holler, I am guessing you have seen the nuptial ants. Cheers.

  10. Flying ants can also be seen here in Germany. In my garden there is sometimes a lot of swarming in the air.
    Thanks to you for your informative contribution. 22,000 species, wow!

  11. A wonderful post of little creatures that are in such a big part of our lives.
    You presented us with incredible information regarding their lives and
    co-habitation with the lizards. We all have to get along! Great information here!
    Thank you Jet, great photos!

  12. Fascinating info your post Jet. I had no idea this ritual occurred. I have seen a few of the flying ants about, but completely new to me they are selected for this endeavor. Always learning something new in every one of your entertaining posts.

  13. Oh, my goodness! What a fantastic sequence to watch and capture that must have been. Thanks for the wonderful images and interesting info. 😊

  14. Completely immersed in your storytelling of the flying ants, Jet. I’ve seen them throughout my life but really never knew their role or behaviors- now I do, thanks to you. Excellent shots by Athena. I really liked your line, β€œThe success of their species is attributed to their social organization and drive to collectively work to support the colony.” We humans could learn something from the ants, couldn’t we? πŸŒŽπŸœπŸ€·πŸΌβ€β™€οΈ

    • I’m happy I could clarify for you the flying ants you have seen, Jane. They are tricky to photograph because they’re tiny and diaphanous and fluttering everywhere, so I’m glad you appreciated the photography, that means a lot coming from you. And yes, their unity and social cooperation are a good example for us humans who spend so much time, money and resources destroying our fellow species. A delight to have you stop by, Jane, thank you.

  15. What a species, indeed!!! I remember with joy, wonder and amazement the time I witnessed the nuptial flight from your kitchen window! It was one of the craziest things I’d ever seen!

    • Oh such fun to be reminded of that time we witnessed the nuptial flight together, Nan. I remember being grateful at the time because we were behind a window, sometimes it can get a little nutty with them flying in every direction. My warmest thanks and lots of love.

  16. I see Curt got here first with his description of the termite flights in Liberia. He and I taught in the same town — Gbarnga — although in different years at different institutions, but that ‘bugabug’ flight was the same! When I think of it, my first thought is always of the kids running around with their dishpans, gathering up the insects to roast. Anyone who tells you they taste just like popcorn is exaggerating a bit — although if you drank enough palm wine or beer with them, that might be so. I tried them once, and that was enough to fulfill my “been there, done that” requirement. To be honest, the fruit bat was better.

    I do sometimes see nuptial flights around the boats. Like our southern love bugs, they can create havoc in fresh varnish, but they’re more interested in procreation than my attempt at artistic creation.

    • I so enjoyed your comment, Linda, thanks so much. I LOL at this: “To be honest, the fruit bat was better.” When Curt mentioned Liberia, I thought of you, so I’m glad for the clarification. And I always like hearing about your exotic and fascinating experiences in Liberia. My warmest thanks and cheers to you–

  17. Fabulous explanation of the nuptial ants. We seem to have something similar, but I’m guessing it happens more toward the fall. Our violet-green swallows have been seen in our neighborhood, but they haven’t yet explored the nest box. When we have our ant-being-eaten frenzy, it seems that there are far too many ant wings to count littered all over the place. I’m guessing we may have carpenter ants (termites?) here. The swallows scoop up lots of insects out over the creek it seems for most of the summer.

    There, you’ve done it! Sent me down another rabbit hole gathering up more interesting tidbits about my surroundings!. πŸ™πŸ€— Thank you.

    • I’m smiling, Gunta, delighted to have sent you “down another rabbit hole.” I loved hearing about your violet-green swallows arriving and what they do at the creek, and your flying ants and beautiful surroundings. What a great treat to have you stop by, my friend, thank you.

  18. Thank you for helping us better understand this incredible world of ants & suggesting, too, its societal parallels with human life! The beauty in those swallow photos also made me pause in wonder.

    • I am happy to expound on the incredible world of ants, Walt, and really glad you enjoyed it. “Pause in wonder” is a beautiful phrase, thanks for sharing your lovely words here today.

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