Seen at The Festival of the Tree

...if you would be happy all your life, plant a garden ~ Chinese proverb

Monday, 29 July 2013

Of Flying Ants and Citizen Science


Last Thursday our patio was heaving with hundreds of flying ants as they made their getaway to mate and find pastures new. I'd seen the odd ant around previously, but hadn't quite realised how many we actually have. They were pouring out of around 10 places between the slabs, plus both large containers outside the back door were transformed into writhing black from their usual terracotta.

I'm wondering if we have lots of nests in our garden all co-ordinating themselves in some way, or was I witnessing an emergence from some vast subterranean network beneath our feet?

Thanks to @BrotchieLight (who hails from Canada), I was alerted to this fantastic blog, contrasting Lisa Smith's experience this year with an account of 'flying ant day' written in 1707. Her post also links to the Society of Biology's flying ant survey which invites everyone to send in details of their experiences.

An earlier survey of 6,000 'citizen scientists' has already dispelled the myth there is just one day each year when this phenomenon occurs. The results show it happening over a number of days in July and August with two peaks of especially high sightings either side of a low pressure system moving across the UK.

It also showed emergence tends to occur between 4 and 6pm. I took my photograph at 3.57pm after watching my ants for around 5 minutes, so they were slightly on the early side. We had rain on Tuesday, so that fits in with last year's low pressure system observation.

Whilst last year's results dispelled a myth and made new discoveries, the Society of Biology is repeating the survey again to see if the results show that this is the usual kind of ant activity, and to discover fresh insights. I've already filled in my survey which took less than 5 minutes. Here's the form, so you can join in too.

Update 1st August: I had a second flying ant day today at 12.45pm. Not as massive as the first one, but on a very hot day after rain on Monday (lots + an all-day storm) and Tuesday.

And whilst you're outside, why not take part in The Big Butterfly Count too? It's the perfect excuse to sit and enjoy your garden for 15 minutes :)

16 comments:

  1. I've had loads of ants this year too. Last year was The Year of the Slug, this year I'm finding it's The Year of the Ant. I should have done the Big Butterfly Count at Stinchcombe Hill yesterday - it's a high area of grassland, and there were hundreds of flying things everywhere. Very interesting to know that in fact there isn't just one flying ant day per year - it always seems like there is.

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    1. So far my butterfly count has been the entire cabbage white family. However, I did spot a comma the other day, which I was relieved to see!

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  2. While I don't have flying ants in my current neighborhood, there have been swarms of little red ants going from hole to hole last week. Previous to that it was in May, just as the ground was warming up that the ants swarmed.

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    1. Interesting that your swarming is much earlier than ours. I have loads of red ants too, on the allotment :( I have to be careful if I disturb them as I'm very sensitive to their bites.

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  3. Fun! Gross and interesting! Yay science!

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  4. Ours start to swarm and then seem to stop. One afternoon I saw a juvenile starling jumping up and down on the nest in the edge of the lawn, all the wingedy ones came walking out and then he dined on them. We never win with the ants, they just move house when we get rid of one nest. I find they like to nest in the base of artichoke plants and angelica, not to mention the cardoons. I get immensely annoyed by them farming aphids up and down my plants and very relieved when the ladybirds turn up to feed on the aphids. This year we are trying the ant nematode in some of the more annoying nests, not sure how effective it is.

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    1. Hi Joanna - they nest in loads of my pots which suggests I'm not watering them enough! Your starling has the right idea :) If I can, I open up the nest so the birds can have a feast. The ladybirds have been absent so far this year, but I did find a few on the allotment last week, so perhaps they're on their way here at last.

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  5. I had loads of flying ants last year - in a big herb planter on the patio, in cracks around a manhole cover on the patio and even in tomato grow bags in the greenhouse. So, here I am armed with my little plastic test tube from the Society of Biology to collect samples for them - and not a flying ant is to be seen in my garden! Can you direct some of yours to Hertfordshire please?

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    1. Another lot emerged yesterday (Thurs 1st Aug) - perhaps some fly your way? ;)

      I'm very impressed you're part of the test tube part of the survey :)

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  6. Have a rather vivid and unpleasant memory of being caught up in a cloudburst of flying ants at our local bus station one day last summer :( Now what I want to know is why can some ants fly whilst the majority I presume can't.

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    1. We've been caught up in a couple of bee swarms which are a pretty lively experience! The latest was yesterday at our friends, who ironically had sent his own hives away the day before because they're moving down to Devon next week. It possibly was because there was some honey in the garage and they were raiding it.

      One thing which intrigued me with the flying ants is there are also gazillions of other non-flying ants going beserk around the emergence points when the other ants fly away. Are they another type of ant in the colony? Will they be flying ants one day? As ever with these things. there's always more questions to answer! I must try and video it sometime.

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  7. I share your views on ants and try to keep away from them - especially the flying ones. I've always subscribed to the idea of one plague of flying ants, now will be on the alert for the second fly past. It makes sense that ants would prefer dry areas for their nests - we have one big ants' nest that I know of (and can't do anything about as it's right in the corner of a raised brick border); I'd lazily left a turf of grass on the wall near that nest after digging out a space for a new apple tree in January and, turning it over recently, found large numbers of ants' eggs underneath. Fascinating to watch as hundreds of ants mustered out of the ground to cart the precious eggs off to safety! (It didn't work as I got rid of them).

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    1. Yes, I like seeing what happens when a nest is opened. Got a few bites for my trouble too!

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  8. I've been waiting for our ants to fly off, but no sign of wings yet. Always an amazing sight, though preferably viewed from safely indoors...

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  9. Janet - we had them whilst safely indoors at my mum's yesterday. Only they were safely indoors too!

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