Here we go again.
While 2020 has seemingly thrown everything else off schedule, Flying Ant Day has arrived to bring back some much needed stabillity.
The flying ant period can last a few weeks, but usually builds up to a specific day when millions of flying ants come out at the same time all over the country.
And according to reports across social media, the annual phenomenon has made its return to Kent.
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Why do flying ants come out on the same day?
National Flying Ant Day is when male and female ants sprout wings and venture out of their nests on a “nuptial flight”, seeking ants from other colonies to mate with.
According to the Society of Biology, nuptial flight is an important phase in the reproduction of the ant species. During the flight, virgin queens mate with males and then land to start a new colony.
The flying ants you encounter in your town or garden are almost certainly the black garden variety, the Lasius niger. Their nests have a single queen and typically around 5,000 workers, although there can be as many as 15,000.
The ants you see throughout most of the year are workers, collecting food for the colony. Workers are all female and will be alive as adults for about a month. The flying ants you see once a year are males and young queens.
Queens can live for over 10 years and spend most of their lives in their nest. New queens, however, will leave to mate and found a colony of their own.
The ‘nuptial flight’ is why ants fly. Ants mate during flight, so males and young queens both have wings. If you look carefully at flying ants you will see that some are much larger; these are the queens.
Why are there so many flying ants?
The large numbers of flying ants which appear in a short space of time increase the chance of reproduction: there is a very high chance a queen will encounter a male from another nest.
Once the males and immature queens have mated, the queens then try to start a new nest. The queens lose their wings, and after a ‘Flying Ant Day’ you can sometimes see large ants walking around on their own. These are new queens looking for somewhere to set up their nest.
When is Flying Ant Day?
There’s no exact date every year, but flying ant day usually falls in July.
It is thought to be when a spell of wet weather is followed closely by hot humid weather, and Queen ants take this as their cue to seek males to mate with.
“Recent surveys have shown that winged ants emerge over several weeks, although there are usually several large peaks,” wrote Dr Christopher Terrell-Nield from Nottingham Trent University in an article for The Conversation.
“Since swarming is triggered by temperature and often occurs after summer rain, ants over a large area can appear on the same day if conditions are similar across it.”
The Royal Society of Biology is studying why this phenomenon occurs, investigating what weather conditions encourage ants to fly.
“After four years of our flying ant survey, we have found that flying ant day isn’t as predictable as we had at first thought,” the group said.
Beware of ‘drunk’ seagulls
While it might seem quite unrelated, those frolicking about beach towns should be on guard against crazy seagulls during Flying Ant Day. This is because it’s been reported seagulls have been “getting drunk” feasting on flying ants.
In previous years scores of seagulls have been seen congregating in Brighton across roads, caring little for the cars hurtling towards them. They have also been spotted stomping the ground in parks hoping to tuck into their favourite snacks.
Dr Rebecca Nesbit, an entomologist with the Society of Biology, has said the ants produce formic acid which can “stupefy” the gulls. She said the amount eaten could explain why gulls were not flying away from danger quickly.
This led some to fear an increase in seagull attacks, but Woodingdean wildlife expert Roger Musselle said they were more more likely to get hit by cars.
“I think they probably just like the flavour,” he said. “It’s fairly normal this time of year for it to happen because of the weather conditions. As soon as the flying ants come out you can see the gulls circling. They will go on to the grass or nearer roads where they can get to the ants.”
How to get rid of the flying ants
While the flying ants don’t pose much danger to people in the UK – other than being very annoying – here are six top tips to help you tackle the little creatures head-on.
1. Spray the ants with dishwashing soap
Dishwashing soap is an effective agent against flying ants, as it attaches to their bodies and dehydrates them. Get yourself a spray bottle to catch the little creatures in flight and mix two generous squirts of dish washing liquid with water.
2. Catch them with sticky tape
Lure the little things in with a food source and place some tape as close as possible with the sticky side up.
3. Attack ants with an artificial sweetener
Certain types of sweeteners are very toxic for ants. For example, if you mix in the sweetener with apple juice, it forms a viscous paste that the ants will carry back to the colony. Once consumed there, it will kill off a portion of their population.
4. Use insecticidal powder
An insecticidal lacquer can be applied around door thresholds or wall and floor junctions where ants run, or spray these areas with an insecticidal aerosol which is labelled for this use.
5. Place tin cans over the ant hill
This should be done in the morning. As it heats up, the ants take their eggs up into the can. In the afternoon slide a piece of cardboard under each can, and remove and dispose of the eggs. They make a nice treat for birds, especially chickens.
6. Pour boiling water into the ant hill
Once you have located the ant hill, pour boiling water over it. This should kill most of the ants and detract other ones from coming back.
However, keep in mind when killing flying ants that they are actually good for outdoor environments. They aerate soil, help to cycle nutrients, improve garden fertility and control pests.
Flying ants also provide a vital food resource for many species of birds, particularly swifts and gulls.