Flying Ants Day

by Kate Bradbury

I found a winged, black ant in the garden last week. The child inside me said "Flying Ants Day!" but there was no sign of any others.

Disturbed ant nestI found a winged, black ant in the garden last week. The child inside me said "Flying Ants Day!" but there was no sign of any others. Perhaps it had just left the nest prematurely to test the atmospheric humidity, or was impatiently hoping to find some other winged ants which had also broken out early.

Flying Ants Day is a celebratory event for black ants, Lasius niger. Some people see it as the ants' wedding day, but it's more of a one-night-stand, really, a giant mating ritual where daughter queens and males emerge en masse and fly in the air to mate, before the females drop their wings and search for new digs and the males crawl off to die. The day, usually in late-July, is timed perfectly to ensure optimum weather conditions for the event. Hot and humid is best, apparently.

In any one area, ants from thousands of nests will take to the skies at once, forming large, mating swarms. It's exciting, not least for insect-eating birds, which have rich pickings for a day or two. Of the bird species that take advantage of Flying Ants Day, starlings, swifts and sparrows are in serious decline. According to the RSPB, swifts have declined by a third in recent years, house sparrows by almost 60% since 1979 and starlings by almost 75%. One of the reasons cited for such declines is a lack of insect food. While sparrows and starlings have adapted to use garden bird feeders, insects form a large part of their diet and their young are almost exclusively fed on insects. And you'll never find swifts on your fat balls.

(If you hear swifts screaming above you in the evening, the RSPB would love to hear about it.)

Gardeners aren't traditionally fans of insects, except pretty ones, like butterflies and bees. They're not made welcome in areas of intensively managed agriculture, either. But these 'pests' form an important part of the food chain and many species of bird and bat rely on them. Sadly, a common way of dealing with ants is to pour boiling water over the nest. I wonder how many ant mating rituals will be cut short, and how many swifts, sparrows and starlings will be denied a dinner at the hands of gardeners with kettles of boiling water this year.

So Flying Ants Day is important, not just for broody ants but for our declining bird species, too. I'm hoping this year's event takes place on a weekend, so I can witness it in full swing. In the meantime I'm finding out how to provide the right conditions for the latest wildlife gardener's accessory: an ant hill.

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Gardeners' World Web User 08/07/2011 at 14:54

We've got ants in our greenhouse. And we can't wait for them to take to the skies every year, because they make it almost impossible to stay in the greenhouse for more than a minute, on account of the way they crawl up our legs and into our pants.

Gardeners' World Web User 08/07/2011 at 15:30

Did you know ants and thyme go together? The soil on an anthill is so fine the wild thyme seeds find it perfect for germination. I have lots of anthills and it is fascinating when they all fly. My children used to rob the eggs to feed their goldfish. However, it is wise to try and avoid a sting from a red ant and if you do get one try not to scratch it when it itches but put on some soothing ointment. Keep them away from picnic tables and the kitchen by a barrier of orange peel divided up into small pieces - the do not like the smell of citric acid. Oh, and do not spill any sugar.

Gardeners' World Web User 08/07/2011 at 15:36

That's interesting happymarion, because wild thyme is the foodplant of large blue butterfly caterpillars, which fall to the ground after feeding and are carried into the nests of red ants. Isn't nature wonderful? I have ants in my garden but I don't know where they're nesting. I'd like a really big ant hill so I can make a feature of it. Kate

Gardeners' World Web User 08/07/2011 at 17:04

We had this a couple of nights ago - we live in Spain and it was very hot and humid and the swift's and swallows, and bee eaters put on a fantastic display. Not so good for the ants though!!

Gardeners' World Web User 09/07/2011 at 13:35

I am missing my housemartins. I had a nest over my bedroom window and use to love hearing them chatter. This was approximately three years ago, plus screeching of swifts and swallows. Only saw four swifts, no swallows or housemartins. I live near Durham, I would love to know what has happened!!

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