The swirling mass of seagulls slowly progressing along the valley halted my attempts at washing the dishes. I stared, perplexed, through the kitchen window. My house was positioned half-way up the valley side giving a bird’s-eye view along two valleys, and I watched as the seagulls moved down the Golden Valley and then took a sharp left into the adjoining Toadsmoor Valley. Then, washing-up finished, I headed out for a spot of gardening and discovered the reason for the avian invasion. Climbing out of cracks in the soil, the path and in fact, everywhere were masses of winged ants. I’d just witnessed my first ant swarm.
So where do the seagulls fit into this? Keep reading…
That was many years ago, and I now keep a look-out for winged ants in the garden as I wait for the annual swarm. It’s nature’s biggest ‘one night stand’ and it happens only on one warm, muggy day in July or August. ‘The Swarm’ might have been a dreadful 1978 disaster movie about swarms of killer bees in America (considered one of the worst films ever made, even though it starred Michael Cane), but our own version involves millions of black pavement ants (Lasius niger is their scientific name). These are the ants that live in our gardens and they’re simply looking out for some sexual action. They don’t pose any risk to us as they’re far too occupied with mating, and the swarm is too high up in the sky. If you see the winged ants emerge in your garden, leave them be as they’ll be heading skywards before you know it.
For the rest of the year, the ants live in an underground complex of chambers which they’ve built themselves. Ants are essentially wingless wasps and create vast colonies the same as the social types of wasps and bees do. The ant colony consists of one queen and millions of workers – female ants that are actually the queen’s daughters. The queen is little more than an egg-laying machine whilst the workers tend the eggs and young, feeding and protecting them. However, the queen controls the behaviour of all the other ants in her colony through the hormones and scented pheromones she emits – how about that for the ultimate in girl power?!
Once the colony reaches a certain size, the queen stops laying eggs that turn into female workers and starts laying eggs that hatch into males and more queens. She also grows wings so that when the temperature and weather conditions are right, she joins all the other queens and males to fly high into the sky. The incredible thing is that, although ecologists aren’t sure what these right conditions are, all the other black ant colonies in an area know and swarm at the same time.
The result is an orgy as the male ants fight with each other to mate with the queens which also turns into a feast of ‘food on the go’ for birds, particularly gulls which are partial to pavement ants. There are so many millions – if not billions – of ants in the swarm that the birds can’t eat them all. Once the mating is over, the queens return to the ground, bite off their wings (ouch!) and start new colonies. Whichever way you look at it, the males don’t come out of this well – they’re either eaten or die after mating, having done their bit to keep the next generation going.