Can some ants fly?

By Dr. Killigan
Can some ants fly?

During a recent experience of mine in what I consider one of the finest burger joints around, I overheard a child of not more than six years old inquire to his mother about the origin of babies.

At the table directly across from mine, ketchup smeared along his sun-tanned cheeks, and his pudgy little fingers looked shiny and slightly dangerous—a mixture of grease and salt from the paper cup of french fries sitting in front of him. Before his mother could stomach her next burger bite, I heard the youngster—without hesitation—ask, “Why is the sky blue? And can ants fly?”

I hadn’t spent much time around children, but couldn’t help but consider this one-sided animated conversation. This school-ready child was very inquisitive. His mother smiled calmly. As she took a long drink of soda through a kinked plastic straw, I caught her eye.

"I could tell your son a bit about flying ants, if you'd like?" I asked.

She beamed as she nodded, and I slid my chair over to their table.

Are there any ants that can fly? 

Though it may come as a surprise, most ant species can produce a generation of ants with wings, rendering these offspring capable of flight. Ants are, after all, very ingenious insects.

Winged ant in nature

It all begins when a new queen starts a colony. At first, she produces only sterile, female worker ants. But over time, as her colony grows, she realizes the need to expand and grow other colonies. In order to strengthen their genetics and avoid disease vulnerabilities that occur when any creature is inbred, she produces a generation of reproductive ants that can fly. The worker ants ensure that these soon-to-fly-winged-ants (both male and female) remain fed as they go through their developmental phases. When they become sexually mature and the colony is ready to expand naturally, the winged ants take flight.

Flight makes it possible for these flying ants to mate with ants from other colonies and then begin their own colonies.

When do ants with wings fly?

Humid, late summer weather triggers ants to take flight and initiate this mating ritual. This voyage is referred to as “nuptial flight” by those who study bugs. It frequently occurs a few days after heavy rainfall.

Why are there ant swarms?

As the winged queen ants and male ants take flight, they release pheromones that trigger other ants to also take flight, thus creating a flying-ant-swarm.

For the ants, flying in such large numbers both protects them from predators and allows them the maximum opportunity to mate with ants (from other colonies). 

Do queen ants lay eggs?

Mating usually occurs in the air. After this takes place, two things happen: the now fertilized female finds a suitable site to build a nest and the male, having done its duty, dies. (He already hadn’t been receiving adequate protein.)

The mother-to-be ant, having found a place to form a brood chamber, then does something revolutionary. She breaks off and eats her wings in a demonstration that a new chapter of her life is about to begin. These now defunct, obsolete flying muscles (that she eats) provide the queen ant with the nourishment and strength needed to lay eggs.

The ant then cloisters herself within her nest for several weeks, as she lays the eggs and tends them until they hatch. The queen will remain at this nest, laying eggs, for the rest of her life. She never mates again, yet is able to lay thousands to millions of eggs in her lifetime.

Where do ants build their nests?

Most often, ants prefer to build their nests outdoors, where they have easy access to food and where good nest-building-sites can be easily found. However, due to the expanding worldwide population growth, humans have inevitably encroached upon ant territory. Human and ant interaction is, thus, unavoidable.

  • Carpenter ants: Outdoors, the large carpenter ants build their nests in stumps, fallen trees, or old, abandoned logs. Indoors, nests are likely to be found in moist wood damaged by water leaks, such as those around sinks, bathtubs, windows or door frames (that are poorly sealed), weakly flashed chimneys and roof leaks.
  • Pavement ants: Outdoors, pavement ants make their nests in sidewalk cracks and under stones. Indoors, nests are most likely in ground-level masonry walls, but can also be found in insulation and under floors.
  • Odorous house ants: Outdoors, odorous house ants create nests in exposed soil, under firewood or the loose bark of trees, in mulch beds, or beneath stones or wood piles. Indoors, they nest near moisture sources, such as wall voids near hot water heaters, in water pipes, under carpets, in wall crevices and beneath floors.
  • Fire ants: Outdoors, fire ants construct hills, also called mounds, by pushing up soil as they burrow in the earth. They prefer open, sunny areas -meadows, playgrounds, parks, golf courses, and lawns- but will nest in nearly any type of soil. These ants may trek indoors, but they do not build their nests indoors.

Flying ants v. termites: How do I know that I have flying ants?

If you discover that you have flying insects indoors, ensure that you have (flying) ants before choosing the best method to get rid of these invaders. Winged ants look a lot like termites. They may carve out tunnels and galleries in decaying wood in order to nest, whereas termites actually consume this wood, possibly causing severe damage to your home. What to look for:

Termites

  • Equal length wings that are long and uniform  
  • Straight antennae
  • Straight abdomen

    Flying ants

    • Unequal length wings: the front is noticeably larger than the back
    • Bent antennae that seem to “elbow”
    • Thin abdomen with a clearly visible "waist" 

      How do I get rid of flying ants?

      Ants are some of the most prolific insects in the world; their population is estimated to be somewhere between 10 and 100 quadrillion worldwide, meaning there are roughly 2.5 million ants per person. Because of their clever nature and resourcefulness, they can be extremely hard to exterminate. They are the ultimate colonial survivors.

      If you find that you have flying ants (known as alates) in your home, they are likely on a quest to create a new colony, as foraging worker ants (those not flying) of any species do not have wings. Some of the more common alates that will invade your home are carpenter ants, pavement ants or odorous house ants. (Fire ants—as mentioned above—do not nest indoors).

      Know that these flying ants are no more dangerous than their non-flying counterparts that you may discover marching across your kitchen floor. If this ant species doesn’t sting, bite or pose a threat to humans, neither will its flying variety.

      To get rid of flying ants—

      • Use your vacuum cleaner at will and suck up any crawling or flying ants. Make sure to remove the contents straight away. 
      • Look for any entry points. Seal these entrance locations. (This will prevent more ants from entering your home.)
      • Use the Insect Buster. First, fill this bulb duster with diatomaceous earth or another non-toxic insect powder. Next, use the Insect Buster to disperse a thin layer of any non-toxic insect powder wherever you have seen ant traffic. “Puff” inside of any cracks and crevices where the ants may be attempting to establish a colony. Note: Ants must come into contact with this powder for it to be effective. Unlike ant bait, it is not carried back to the colony. 
      • Inspect for structural damage. Look for signs of sawdust under damaged wood. Flying ants do not cause damage like termites, as they do not eat the wood, but they can chew through and hollow out the wooden areas of your home, especially wood that has been damaged by water or is in the process of breaking down or rotting. If you find structural damage, remove and replace any rotten, decaying wood found in your walls or under your floors. This will remove the colony’s nesting site.

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      1 comment
      • Thank you for sharing this informative post about flying ants. It’s helpful to know how to distinguish between flying ants and termites to avoid confusion when dealing with an infestation.

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