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.