Some people in the U.K. believe Flying Ant Day is a fixed event — the day each year when the flying insects emerge. (Photo: Dun.can/flickr)
If you're sitting somewhere reading this now on a nice summer day, look up. There are likely billions of insects in the air column directly overhead. They're too small to see, and are nothing to worry about, but they're there. Millions and millions of bugs — bees, spiders, wasps, beetles and ants.
Most of us think of little crawly things swarming the picnic or invading the kitchen when we think of ants, but there's a critical point in most ant species' reproductive cycles that requires them to grow wings and take flight. When that happens, female queens and their smaller male consorts take to the skies in search of cross-colony mating opportunities.
After a little bit of steamy ant consummation on the wing, impregnated females land and attempt to start a new colony. Most do not survive, becoming food for birds and other insects, but enough will give birth to a new generation to start a new colony, ensuring their overall survival.
You can't argue with the results — ants are widely recognized in the scientific world as a highly successful form of life, having colonized just about every possible place on the planet, this side of Antarctica, and represent roughly 20 percent of all terrestrial animal biomass.
When is Flying Ant Day?
A spider's web sits flush and fat with collected flying ants, a testament to a recent local emergence. (Photo: Kai Schreiber/flickr)
The emergence of flying ants is ubiquitous enough in the United Kingdom to give rise to local legends about their annual appearance, with some pegging it as a fixed event. A team of researchers at the University of Glouchestershire and the Royal Society of Biology wanted to test that theory and came up with a smart way to do it — they harnessed the crowd.
It's a difficult-to-impossible proposition for one team of researchers to record the emergence of ants across the entire United Kingdom, but when you ask thousands of people to join in using the power of smartphones, it becomes a little more manageable. So that's what Professor Adam Hart, who wrote a great article about his team's work in BBC News, did.
Starting in 2012 and running through 2014, Hart and his team ran an annual survey in which they asked participants to report when they first saw flying ants. They augmented the base survey by having especially engaged surveyors collect actual ant specimens and ship them to the team be studied. The researchers found that almost 90 percent of all ants collected belonged to just one species — the black garden ant, Lasius niger.
Aren't they the cutest? (Photo: Bill Tyne/flickr)
They also were able to settle the question of the regularity and periodicity of flying ants' emergence — there being none of either. The timing of the arrival of local flying ant days depended on the climate and weather and were just as likely to happen in early June as they were early September.
There was little to no geographic clustering, with just a slight pattern of moving northwards and westwards across the U.K. over the course of a summer. Far and away though, weather was the largest contributing factor, with temperature, wind speed and precipitation all being taken into account by the ant collective.
And interestingly, the team of researchers found that ants are great at predicting the weather forecast in the short term. When weather is bad, ants would hold off on taking flight if conditions were going to improve. But if conditions were going to remain dismal, and the local temperature and wind speeds were still within their target range, then they would launch into the skies to seek out love and the survival of their species.