I awoke to the loud screeching of the laughing and herring gulls, interrupted by the cries of the Mediterranean seagulls. As I pulled the curtains back, I saw them spinning across the garden in a feeding frenzy, snapping their bills as they snatched insects on their wings.
There had been a heavy downpour overnight and the subsequent combination of bright sunshine, high humidity and low wind speed had triggered the massive appearance of the black garden ants (Lasius niger). Outside, I found fertile winged adults – called alates – bursting from a crack in the cobblestones while others poured from a second nest under the bird bath.
“Day of the flying ant” is more likely to be referred to as a nationwide, annual, one-off event. If the conditions remain the same, the spectacle can be observed from a wide area – social media made me aware of simultaneous events along the south coast. However, it often takes place over several days and, depending on local conditions, can take place at any time between June and August.
The ants rose into the air and dispersed, the larger virgin queens waved pheromone trails to attract drones from other colonies. The fastest and most robust suitors paired with the queens in their wedding flight. Not only does mass flying increase the likelihood of finding a mate, it also means security in numbers, although thousands of individuals have still been caught by the onslaught of birds.
‘The fastest and most robust suitors mate with the queens in their wedding flight.’ Photo: Alamy
The feast lasted nearly two hours, and the seagulls joined a flock of swifts as they swept through the ant clouds on crescent-shaped wings. It was followed by swallows and house swallows, filing over the trees and chimneys where the insects gathered in dense schools – a behavior known as “hilltopping”. These clusters sometimes become dense enough for the Met Office’s radar to pick up.
After mating, the males die within a few days. Surviving fertilized queens have an average lifespan of 15 years, but the rest of their livelihoods will be earthbound as they head off to establish new colonies. That evening I found her bitten off wings on the terrace like iridescent shreds of cellophane.
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