Flying Ant Day 2018 – What, When, and Why?

“The Day of the Flying Ants.” Sounds like a Stephen King novel, but Flying Ant Day is a phenomenon the many of us have come to know yet it still takes us by surprise every year. In fact, roughly 50 Billion flying ants are expected to descend on the country this year. But what exactly is ‘Flying Ant Day’, and why does it occur?

Whilst commonly referred to as Flying Ant Day, it isn’t actually just a day; it can last for a few weeks, but usually culminates in one day a year where millions of flying ants from locations across the country are noticeably active. In 2012 the University of Gloucestershire and the Royal Society of Biology decided to run an annual survey involving the general public, requesting that people fill out their ‘Flying Ant Survey’ so they could start gathering more concise information by analysing the number of flying ants, dates and locations of these sightings. There were thousands of sightings a day; in fact between the start of June and the end of September only 4% of days were no flying ants reported anywhere in the country.

The Flying Ant frenzy occurs when the Queen ant undertakes a process known as ‘Nuptial Flight’ and is an important phase in their reproductive cycle. This is when the virgin winged ant Queen takes flight to find males to mate with. A mature ant colony can produce winged virgin Queens and winged male ants as well as the wingless, sterile worker ants. The Queens will stay within their colony until conditions are right for the nuptial flight. These conditions are purely environmental, and allow ants from various colonies to be able to somewhat loosely synchronise their nuptial flights to increase the chances of fertilization. Scientists have been studying these environmental conditions, hoping to be able to fully determine what these are and accurately predict each year when this nuptial flight will occur. However, they are now realizing that it is in fact a lot more complex that they first thought.

The Queen will remain in her parent colony and won’t mate with any of the males around to prevent inbreeding which could be disastrous for the colony. Instead they wait, and come this nuptial flight will take off from the colony, Queens and males alike in a large swarm, a deliberate tactic to overwhelm any predators that may be lurking. The Queen and the males will then scatter, again to ensure little chance of inbreeding, and the Queen will start releasing pheromones to attract the males to her. But she won’t let just any ant mate with her; only the fastest and fittest who can keep up with her well enough are allowed to fertilize her. The Queen usually mates with many males as their sperm can be stored in an organ called the  spermatheca which can last for up to 20 years and be used to fertilize tens of millions of eggs through the Queens lifetime. Unfortunately for the male, this mating process ends with his genetalia literally exploding resulting in a quick death. Once the nuptial flight process is over the Queen will land, lose her wings and find somewhere to set up a new colony.

They will remain in this colony for the rest of their lives. Queen ants are much larger than the male ants, and once the flying ant period is over you may see abnormally large ants wandering around – these are most likely the Queens, having now lost their wings and are looking for a place to establish a nest.

As mentioned above, there are certain environmental conditions that can predict when “Flying Ant Day” will occur. Typically it is something that occurs at some point in July or August following a period of wet weather which is then followed by hot and humid conditions, but thanks to survey findings we can dig a little deeper and find that it isn’t just that simple. In 2012 the most prolific days for flying ants were a few days at the end of July and a few in mid-August, with 80% of flights being concentrated in these periods. It is thought that a terrible patch of cold and wet weather at the end of July caused this concentration of activity. In 2013 however, the consistently fine weather resulted in what has been referred to as ‘pulses’ of flight activity every few weeks throughout the summer months.

Those experts who try to pin down the time of the year flying ants will start swarming are warning that not only could it arrive earlier this year thanks to the unpredictable weather conditions we have been experiencing so far this year, but this could also be one of the biggest swarms we have seen for years – some have predicted roughly 50 billion flying ants will fill the skies.

Flying ants may be a bit of a pain but at least they are harmless. In fact, at this time of the year you ought to be more worried about seagulls than ants. Seagulls love feasting on flying ants despite the fact that the ants contain formic acid which the seagulls get ‘drunk’ on and start causing trouble, such as flying into cars and more aggressively hunting for food.

As much of a nuisance as it can be for some, “Flying Ant Day” is an important part in the ants reproductive process, and hey – at least it doesn’t last that long.

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Jessica Howard

Jessica Howard

31 years old, currently living and working in London, UK.

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