Taking flight

Outdoor Living

FLYING ANT DAY Each year brings a spectacular and spontaneous irruption of flying ants, as the males and virgin queens suddenly develop wings and take to the air.  Pic: istock

Country Sights and Sounds
Michael Kingdon

My feet must have fallen heavy upon the turf, for even before I drew properly close a small grey-brown bird dropped from the earthen bank to the ancient path beneath, where it sat upon a flag with one wing askew.
Another step sent it scuttling ahead of me, through quaking grass and Timothy. When I stopped, so did the bird, and when I moved it did the same, dragging one wing as if it had been injured. I remembered the yellowhammer from years ago – probably the last I had seen, for these pretty buntings are scarcely seen here in the west. That bird had behaved in a similar manner, and had made such a convincing show of things I quite forgot what the game was all about.
There had been a nest, of course, and the brave little lady was quite prepared to sacrifice herself for the sake of her little ones. There had been no need; I wouldn’t have hurt them. Still, I had been quite effectively drawn away by her antics.
Now here we were again. This was no yellowhammer bunting but one of our warblers, though which one I was unable to confirm. I was torn between my desire to find that skillfully woven nest and see the nestlings within and my reluctance to further disturb the anguished parent. Caution won out and I left them all in peace. It is enough to know they are there.
An hour later I stopped at the lake for lunch. Across the bay three male mallard vied for the attention of a single female. There should be ducklings with them – there are less again this year. In fact, I have seen no juveniles at this end of Carra. Even the gadwall that nest deep in the reedbeds are out and about with no little ones in tow.
The sun grew warm above, that cooling breeze being diverted by the trees so that the air about grew heavy and still. I lay on the damp ground with my notebook, watching the ants. They came out from a tiny opening at the base of their home, a decades-old ant-mound grown about with rough grasses and topped with a cushion of wild thyme.
There must have been some kind of excavation going on underground, for an endless stream of shiny-black workers were emerging at ground level, each with a tiny grain of soil held between its jaws. Off they went, one behind the other, to deposit their load nearby, at which they marched back in single file to re-enter the nest and, I imagine, grab another load. I thought it might be interesting to give one a dab of paint at the back end, and see how long it took to complete a circuit of the work.
These black ants are harmless. Here their well-drained, sandy nests stand close together, with some more than a foot high. There must be many millions across these few acres, living in a world far removed from our own. The strongest of these worker ants might live as long as one year, though many will be spent before. The queen might outlive more than twenty generations of her own offspring.
Each year brings a spectacular and spontaneous irruption of flying ants, as the males and virgin queens of every nearby colony suddenly develop wings and take to the air in what will be their nuptial flight. They must be triggered by some chemical signal – I don’t understand how other they would time this emergence so well.
During the flight each queen will mate with several males. The males quickly die – their purpose has been fulfilled, and they become food for birds and fish. The queen ants soon fall to the ground where they chew off their own wings and set about the work of establishing a new colony. Only a few will succeed, and those that do will spend the rest of their days laying eggs. Fertilised eggs produce female workers or potential future queens while unfertilised ones develop into non-working males.
Flying Ant Day provides a high protein boost for many other species, including those fledgling warblers that have their home in that earthen bank, should they survive. There is enough fat in an ant to fry it. At 14 percent protein and containing a mix of beneficial antioxidants they would make an ideal addition to our own diet.

Michael Kingdon formerly wrote these columns under the pseudonym John Shelley. A naturalist and keen fisherman, he lives close to the shores of Lough Carra.