This poem was conceived on the 6th of July according to my writing book. I had been looking for sexuals of ants, especially those of the most prevalent ant in these parts: The Black Garden ant- Lasius niger. The time had seemed right since the end of June. The ground still slightly moist from the summer-time rains in my part of Germany. Warm, sunny mornings and cooler, pleasant evenings. Giving one an opportunity to walk around to wind down after the banality that working from home during the global pandemic brings. A chance to peer into bushes and look for scurrying things ; which is my favourite pastime regardless of the season.
Though my labmates and I had to wait almost another week before we all started spotting multiple small nuptial flights around campus and near our residences, but this poem is a mix of emotions I have felt over the years when witnessing flights and winged ants across countries I have lived in.
THE NUPTIAL FLIGHT The winds that howled through the trees; have changed to a soft whistling breeze. I catch my breath I feel a chill; as the silence grows loud and time stands still. A hare scurries past, a welcome distraction; But nothing compared to the main attraction. The sun bids adieu, but I see the light; for here it is, the nuptial flight. Fly by me oh Queen, my heart it soars. Mate and take your genes to newer shores. The drones in limbo lie in wait; To mate and then die;that is their fate! And here I am; a fly on the wall watching multitudes rise and fall; some to their deaths and some to start new lives get ready everyone; the new queen arrives! The lonely street lamp; ’tis my companion here as I soak up the majesty of this flight Mist creeps in ; a muggy atmosphere. as the dusk gives way to the night. Fly by me oh Queen, my heart it soars. Mate and take your genes to newer shores. The drones in limbo lie in wait; To mate and then die; that is their fate! And mine is to wait and see; revel in this reverie. until I behold that wondrous sight; that is yet another nuptial flight.
For those wondering what all the hullabaloo is :
You might have seen the phrase “Flying Ant day” , even quite recently when a weather radar in England picked up a large nuptial flight similar to rain clouds.
In most ant species, worker ants are exclusively female but incapable of reproduction. The reproducing member, like in the more famous Hymenopteran, the honey-bee; is the QUEEN. Once a colony is large enough, it will start investing in producing fertile individuals, who can spread the colony’s genes elsewhere.
In most ant species, the sexual offspring are winged males and females called ‘Alates’ who seemingly burst forth in multitude once or twice a year, from crevices and nest entrances widened by the workers in preparation. The drones, or males in many ant species are produced just for mating (although this may vary depending on the species and the geography). They arise from UNFERTILISED eggs. Their heads are smaller than that of the female sexuals and look leaner. It is not uncommon to see workers pulling at wings or legs of the alates and almost gathering them in one place in anticipation of the mate-seeking endeavour ahead. And then as you watch, winged individuals from multiple nests containing thousands to millions of sexuals take off. The fat, rotund females, mate with 1 or multiple males in quick succession and settle down, usually away from where they had started out; their and their mates’ colonies’ genes transported to new lands. The males die soon after mating, picked off by the birds having a field day. If they have managed to mate however, their sperm will live on in the female.
The newly mated female; if she manages to survive the ordeal, will lose her wings, find a good spot to dig into and lay low until she produces her first set of workers. She doesn’t feed during this period, instead utilising the fat stored in her abdomen, which is what shows up as her ‘rotundness’. She can now lay eggs to hatch into non-sexual workers, who will then forage and feed her. The eggs she lays are fertilised by the millions of sperms she has stored in that one mating flight right at the beginning; enough to last her entire lifetime (sometimes 10-15 years),as she turns exclusively to egg-laying, the reproduction based task (caste) established. And we lie in wait for her to start producing the next generation of ‘flying ants’.
RESOURCES Logging a nuptial flight: https://antflights.com/ For when you have the next Trivia night: 1.What is a 'nuptial flight'/'Hochzeitsflug'? 2.https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/when-why-winged-ants-swarm-nuptial-flight.html 3.https://theconversation.com/six-amazing-facts-you-need-to-know-about-ants-100478 Male ants : 4. Shik, J.Z., Flatt, D., Kay, A. et al. A life history continuum in the males of a Neotropical ant assemblage: refuting the sperm vessel hypothesis. Naturwissenschaften 99, 191–197 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00114-012-0884-6 What about species where male ants don't always fly: 5. Introducing Cardiocondyla 6. Heinze J Life-history evolution in ants: the case of Cardiocondyla Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 2017 vol: 284 (1850) pp: 20161406 https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2016.1406