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Chewing off her wings – the queen ant’s rite of passage

Posted by on August 2, 2013

Queen abandons wings

By Rebecca Nesbit from the Society of Biology

There has been a long, slow build up to flying ant day this year. The first sightings of winged black garden ants came early, with hundreds of records for the flying ant survey already in by the third week of July. The first major flying ant day, however, was Friday 26th July, though even this turned out to be a prelude to the mass emergence on Thursday 1st August.

For me, this protracted spell of flying ant sightings has been an opportunity to witness some fascinating behaviour as part of one of the summer’s greatest spectacles. On 26th July, I was excited to find some flying ants on the outside of the Society of Biology office. The tiny males were in search of fat new queens to mate with – I even saw two males trying simultaneously to mate with one queen.

Queen Lasius niger chewing off her wingsThe next stage of the process appears quite brutal, but is as simple as a person taking off a cumbersome backpack. The queen contorts her body to chew of her wings one by one (left). The whole process is remarkably quick – she is done in well under a minute. This is why the evening of flying ant day often sees pavements covered in discarded wings.

The wings are no longer of any use to her – once she has dug her new nest she will stay safely underground, unless disturbed, for the rest of her life. She will raise her first brood of workers by herself, relying on the energy from her now defunct wing muscles.

A common question I am asked is why are there two different sizes of flying ants. These are the males and the queens. The males’ only job is to mate – so he only needs to be small. The queen, however, has a long life ahead of her (if she escapes the jaws of hungry birds), possibly 10 years of laying thousands of eggs. I took a photo on Friday (below) which gives an idea of the size difference of the male (on the left) and the female (on the right).

Male and queen flying ant

Flying ant survey participants have had some great stories to tell of swifts, gulls and spiders feasting on the ants. If you have seen flying ants, please report your sighting. You can also visit the Society of Biology website for more flying ant facts.

4 Responses to Chewing off her wings – the queen ant’s rite of passage

  1. Jenny

    Hi, my office have been fascinated with flying ants this year and was wondering if I could ask a few questions. Do the ants grow wings under the ground? I am having trouble explaining that they are normal ants because of the size difference – any ideas on how to explain why some of the ants are small and why flying ants are so much bigger? Why do only the male and queen ants come out of the ground? Why is it only one day that this occurs and do we know what triggers it?

    • dave suttle

      I think the above answers your questions about these remarkable insects. Just been reading stuff on the net about them………….(apparently) queen ants are the longest-living of all insects, quite common for 20yrs and the oldest recorded was 28yrs. The total weight of ants on planet Earth is greater than the total weight of H. sapiens. Without ants most food chians would break down, etc.