Sunday 23 July 2023

Go to the ant, thou sluggard


Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise

                                                                                            (Proverbs 6:6)

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Most flying ants, known as alates, are the the winged version of the common black garden ant, Lasius niger.  Sexually mature queens and males appear on a hot day when the sun is out and people are enjoying a barbecue, perhaps, or gardening, or walking, or simply sitting and enjoying a fine day. The ants like hot, humid days, for the dampness in the air keeps their wings and bodies moist. Rain and wind are their enemies, and then they will keep close to their nests.

There is no one ‘flying ant day’ - they can occur at any opportune time between June and September.  Already this summer in England we have had some auspicious days for the ants. You may notice one or two traversing your arm or leg. Brushing them off, you notice them all over the ground, walking, not flying, quite slow-moving, quite sinister, wings glittering unnaturally in the bright sunlight. In the woods, too, the wood ants are out and about, intent on their flying day. Suddenly, the ants ascend into the air and if you are unlucky enough to be caught in the swarm, your hair or your mouth may trap a few of them.

An ant colony has one queen served by about 5,000 workers, though some nests may have three times that number. The queen’s purpose is to lay eggs and increase the colony. The female workers look after the queen, the eggs and the larvae. They also enlarge the nest and collect food.

Most of the eggs develop into workers but once the nest has been expanded as far as possible, which will vary according to the availability of food and nesting materials and the proximity of other ant colonies, virgin queens and drones will develop. On a suitably fine, warm day, the alates emerge and take flight, looking for a mate. They scatter as they leave the nest to try and ensure that they mate with individuals from other colonies, thus reducing the risk of inbreeding and weakening the species.  There is safety in numbers and a large swarm limits the extent of predation by birds. Each queen usually mates with several males.

The males live for only a day or two after mating while the queen bites off her wings and seeks a suitable location where she burrows underground to lay the first of her eggs. She raises this first brood to maturity, not eating for weeks until her workers are ready to forage for her. She will continue laying eggs for the rest of her life, which may be as long as 15 years in the wild. Queens in captivity have lived for 28 years. She will never emerge from the nest again.


The Ants

What wonder strikes the curious, while he views

The black ant’s city, by a rotten tree,

Or woodland bank! In ignorance we muse:

Pausing, annoyed – we know not what we see.

Such government and thought there seem to be;

Some looking on, and urging some to toil,

Dragging their loads of bent-stalks slavishly:

And what’s more wonderful, when big loads foil

One ant or two to carry, quickly then

A swarm flock round to help their fellow-men.

Surely they speak a language whisperingly,

Too fine for us to hear; and sure their ways

Prove they have kings and laws, and that they be

Deformed remnants of the Fairy-days.

John Clare (1793 – 1864)



  1. Queens in captivity? They may be royal but it doesn't sound like a life of joy and discovery.

  2. I've often wondered about flying ants and why they appear. Mystery solved.

    1. Quite extraordinary, really, like so much of life.

  3. Ditto what Andrew said. I'm not a fan of ants, having been swarmed and bitten as a small child. Here where I now live, the underground is riddled with ant nests and any garden pots soon become infested if left to dry out, I watered last summer and hundreds of ants swarmed over the edge to escape being flooded in one pot on my porch. I make sure to keep them watered now. The lawns and gardens are infested and can't be sat upon safely.

    1. I don't love ants, either, but they are fascinating, like any communal entity. Not a model for humans to follow, anyway.

  4. At my last home I had some every year appearing out of an old brick chimney - I had to hoover them up!

  5. When the ant swarms are over my house the sky above is filled with gulls, massed for the feast.

    1. There's always a winner, in every scenario!

  6. We’ve not had them swarming here…yet! I’m not a fan…although I do enjoy John Clare’s poetry! 😁

    1. I'm not sure anyone looks forward to a swarm . . . on the other hand, it's a sign that some of our insect life seems to be thriving.

  7. How fascinating ... & what a life for the female Ant. Never to emerge from the nest again! Gosh what a thought! We have ants here ... in fact I have just cleaned some out of the bottom of my pantry ... but I am unsure if they are flying. I am guessing the crawling ones are different to the flying variety? Someone (husband!) had spilt some sugar & it bought the ants in in their droves.

  8. Ants in the house are to be dreaded!
    The crawlers are the workers. At least they are able to leave the nest!

  9. I'm not exactly a fan of ants, be it the winged or unwinged variety. There was a flying ant trapped on the tram last week, and I watched its desperate attempts to find an open window. I was feeling sorry for the creature and may have actually cheered when eventually it made its escape! xxx

  10. Ah, poor thing - not much chance of finding a mate in a tram! x x x


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