Life

On the wings of an ant

 David Hawke

Flying ants are not a species unto themselves; they are regular ants participating in a marriage flight. The wings are temporary and, if successful at finding a mate, the new queen will absorb her wing muscles as a food source. (DAVID HAWKE/SPECIAL TO THE PACKET & TIMES)

Flying ants are not a species unto themselves; they are regular ants participating in a marriage flight. The wings are temporary and, if successful at finding a mate, the new queen will absorb her wing muscles as a food source. (DAVID HAWKE/SPECIAL TO THE PACKET & TIMES)

My shovel sunk easily into the compost pile, the annual turning of the soil being well underway. We have a rather large kitchen- and garden-waste compost pile, and it takes a bit of effort to move Stage 2 compost over to the finishing Stage 3 pile, and then transfer the semi-rotted Stage 1 stuff over to the now-vacant Stage 2 pile. Sweat is a part of composting, believe me.

As the shovel was lifted, a swarm of ants were seen in the interior reaches of the pile. Chaos reigned. Ants were racing in all directions, and if ants made a noise, no doubt it would have been the type of scream one hears on B-grade horror movies. Oops, sorry about that!

What really caught my eye was most of the ants had wings. Flying ants are usually noted on a hot and humid late-summer day, but not yet this year. The hot and humid part hasn’t really occurred yet, has it?

After the compost piles had been turned (and the mints moved to a new bed, and the extension ladders hung in a new place, and the Muskoka chairs rearranged, and the brush under the pine tree removed) and I was relaxing indoors, the search for ant lore began. And, let me tell you right up front, they are a strange bunch of critters.

First of all, realize ants are close cousins to wasps, hornets and bees. Put wings on an ant and it kind of looks like a wasp; take the wings off a hornet and it kind of looks like an ant. Cousins, with interchangeable parts. And they all live in colonies, with a queen lording over all that happens in the nest.

Much like a beehive, the ant workers are females that do not reproduce, and the reproductive males are scattered liberally throughout. When the ant hill gets a tad crowded in late summer, it’s time for a change. And to get ready for this change, the new queen ant and the males grow wings. The reason for the wings is mating takes place mid-air. Hey, if you are going to mate, might as well do it in a spectacular fashion.

There is a mysterious communication between all of the local ant colonies, as every hill explodes with flying ants on the same day. This multi-community event ensures inbreeding can be avoided and a strong genetic link is foraged.

Dragonflies, phoebes and migrating swallows love Ant Swarming Day, each participating in its own way. A lot of ants get snacked upon, but there always seem to be a few queens that survive. Immediately after mating, the males die. Males that haven’t mated waste away over the next few days. It really sucks to be a male ant.

The impregnated female ant now finds a new home for herself. The old colony has a new queen being tended to — no need to return home and contest the new leader (even if she is your mother). But the new future colony currently consists of one, and only one, ant.

And here’s where it gets a bit strange: The impregnated queen will lay thousands of eggs over her lifetime, perhaps over a couple of years, yet never needs to mate again. As the egg slides out of her abdomen and touches the sperm sac procured from her recent prince escort, it becomes a female worker or a future queen. If a worker ant lays an egg, it will develop, but always as a male. If the egg does not touch the queen’s sperm sac, it becomes a reproductive male. So, forget all of your basic biology training when it comes to trying to understand ant stuff.

Back to our recently mated and now-in-hiding queen: She will not eat until workers bring her food. But she is alone. Sounds like a flawed plan. However, the wing muscles that developed for the mating flight are now useless, and the proteins from the dissolving muscle are absorbed by her body.

She lays a few eggs and tends to their every need. The first born are fed the larva of the second born, and the now-strong first born begin to tend the third born. And so it goes, sometimes for months, until winter passes. When the workers finally break out of the queen’s little jail, they go wild and start bringing food back to the colony, making sure the first meal goes directly to her majesty. With this renewed regal energy, the colony flourishes.

Ants are important ecologically, as they loosen the soil, start the first stage of plant decomposition and provide themselves as food to a variety of other wildlife (from bears to other ants). While some people might think the TV show Game of Thrones is brutal and exciting — pfft, try following the action in an ant colony!

David Hawke is a columnist for the Packet & Times. He can be contacted at david.hawke55@gmail.com. 



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