The brief season for flying ants has begun in parts of the UK. But where have they come from? And what are they doing?
In the UK, these winged insects are the sexually mature queens and males of the common black ant, Lasius niger. They are known as alates.
This annual swarming event usually occurs from early to mid July and coincides with a period of hot and humid weather.
Over the last few weeks worker ants have been preparing for this event, which lasts only a few days, and you may have seen heaps of soil appearing above their nests.
Queen flying ant, Lasius niger, © Fritz Geller-Grimm/ Creative Commons Share Alike 3.0
The alates emerge from the nest each year and take flight. They aren’t interested in people or picnics, however, they are just looking for a mate.
The large winged females and the smaller winged males are often seen flying joined together and this is known as the nuptial flight.
Once they’ve mated, the role of the males is over. The mated queens quickly shed their wings and begin looking for a suitable site to nest and make a new colony of their own.
These flying insects may seem annoying to some people, but their tunnelling activities play a vital role improving soil quality.
These swarming events also provide a vital food resource for many species of birds, and swifts and gulls can often be seen feeding frenziedly from rising swarms of ants.
So, why do flying ants appear in such large numbers all at once? One reason is that this gives them protection from predators – the larger the swarm, the more predators are kept away.
Another reason for their large numbers is to increase the chance of reproduction - the ants won't have far to look for a mate.
The Natural History Museum’s Identification and Advisory Service (IAS) has not had many flying ant enquiries from the public this year. Although, the people who have enquired, have reported much more spectacular swarms than usual.
Ants, along with bees and wasps, belong to the insect group called Hymenoptera. They are recognised by their 3 fairly distinct body parts.
There are about 60 species of ant in the UK, and they all live in complex colonies. Other non-native species are becoming more widespread, for example the Pharaohs ants and Argentine ants.
In December 2008 a new species was reported invading Britain from Europe. It seems to have been accidentally transported from country to country in pot plant soil, and its success is also due to its supercolonies of sometimes hundreds of inter-connecting nests. This is the Argentine ant, Linepithema humile.
Discover the Centre for UK Biodiversity. It offers a drop-in identification service, research facilities, and online nature resources. Watch a video and meet the team.