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NATURE Flying ants take to the skies

Outdoor Living
When ants might fly


Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley


Sometime shortly after midday a short, winding column of smoke drifted past my window. I took no notice until it made its way back the way it had come, this time against the wind. Smoke going against the wind is always worthy of investigation; I went for a look.
On going out the back door I was met by an onslaught of winged ants. They were everywhere. To say we had millions around us might not be an overstatement. I walked around the garden and then down the road to find them congregating in every quiet area and swarming over bushes and walls.
We see the phenomenon of flying ants every year, but 2010 will be a marked year for them. A warm and dry early part of the year gave them the opportunity to thrive, so that now the wingless form are about in enormous numbers, with the territory of one colony spilling into that of the next. Such overpopulation, combined with the right weather conditions, causes large numbers of ants to suddenly sprout wings and take to the air after being evicted from the nest by their former brothers.
Once aloft they disperse, but only after mating. Although there are a considerable number of female ants, by far the greater proportion of the swarms are male. Each one of the females is a prospective Queen, capable of establishing a new colony wherever the wind takes her. That the queens will be fertile is certain. We found many of them weighed down on the ground by six or eight prospective mates, these clambering over each other in their lust for her body.
Three or four days of heavy rain together with an increase in relative humidity seem to trigger the emergence of flying ants. Somehow, all mature colonies in an area will synchronise this act, so that for one day in the year and maybe two we have this grand spectacle before us.
Before long the swallows noticed the feast that was on offer and the sky above the house soon held large numbers of these birds. Hundreds more were congregated around the trees and over the lake, each one making the most of the bonanza. This was an ideal opportunity for lessons in flying and fly-snatching. Newly fledged birds were doing their best to follow their parents. Some of them have yet to learn the art of feeding themselves. The adults gave the young ones just enough encouragement to keep them on the wing, passing food beak to beak, even flying upside down beneath their offspring to do so.
On the shore finches and warblers were gorging themselves. Ants make good food for birds. If we were stuck for something to eat we could even harvest them ourselves. They contain lots of vitamins, and plenty of folic acid, which, I am reliably informed, gives them quite an appealing flavour. There is also enough fat in an ant to fry it. We had watched a survival expert on the television as he poked a stick into an ants nest and ate the ants which clung to it. I would imagine that, eaten this way, ants might have a rather sharp taste to them. If it came to it I think I would have my food lying still on a plate.
As all anglers know well, flying ant days will be among the best fishing days of the year, for just as the birds feast so the fish will too. I looked out over the lake longingly while contemplating the long list of chores still to be done. One should seize the moment, I knew, but the trout would have to wait.
When the time came, I found my favourite rod no longer in the three pieces as it came from the factory, but in four, with the tip section snapped halfway along its length. Never mind, I had a spare somewhere in the shed… I finally got onto the water after the swallows had long finished their meal and had gone to sleep it off. There wasn’t an ant to be seen. An army of waves travelled unbroken from shore to shore. I stuck it out for an hour before letting the south wind blow me home.
I should have gone out as soon as I saw the first of those ants. There are moments in the year that might not repeat themselves; moments in ones life, too.