Four ‘flying ant days’ in a month

A group of black antsInformation from the public is helping reveal more about the summer spectacle of flying ants

The UK experienced a month of flying ants this summer, scientists have said.

Results from this year’s flying ant survey show four peaks of ant emergence during a four week period and included data from social media for the first time.

Last year’s results dispelled the myth of a single flying ant day by revealing two peaks of activity over a fortnight.

The results were presented by ecologist Professor Adam Hart during a 24 hour lecture as part of Biology Week.

The flying ant survey is conducted by the Society of Biology and University of Gloucestershire.

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Colonial rule

Ants silhouetted on a branch

“Last year we were surprised by two distinct flying ant days, so having such a long period of flying ant sightings this year was even more of a shock,” said Prof Hart, ecologist from the University of Gloucestershire.

Black garden ants (Lasius niger) are the most commonly seen flying ant in the UK when the summer skies fill with a mix of males and potential queens.

The ants mate in the air and their nuptial, or mating flight, is the first step to founding a new colony.

The first flying ant sightings this year were in late June – earlier than in 2012 – and continued into September.

Like last year’s survey, the results indicate that rather than a single ‘flying ant day’ there were multiple peaks in activity.

Dr Rebecca Nesbit, survey coordinator from the Society of Biology explained that 2012 had two very distinct peaks, whereas 2013 had four main peaks. The ‘ant season’ was also longer, with the last flying ant day in 2013 two weeks after the last one in 2012.

“Neither year showed a single ‘flying ant day’ as anecdotes suggested we would find. It has raised interesting questions about whether individual ant nests are releasing flying ants on multiple days,” Dr Nesbit told BBC Nature.

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The similarity between the time of day people were tweeting about flying ants and the times they reported seeing them in our survey was quite striking.”

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Dr Rebecca Nesbit
Society of Biology

“The different patterns in 2012 and 2013 suggest flexibility in the ants’ behaviour. It will be fascinating to see whether these patterns are seen again in following years, or whether we will see new patterns entirely,” she said.

The survey, which ran for the first time in 2012, encourages members of the public to submit their sightings of this summer spectacle to help scientists understand ant behaviour.

Tweeting ants

This year the survey went one step further by using information from social media site Twitter alongside the submitted sightings.

Christina Catlin-Groves from the University of Gloucestershire has been analysing the survey data and said: “Using Twitter has been really exciting for us; now a wealth of new data is available for monitoring the phenomenon.”

One of the main things it allowed the researchers to do was access data prior to the 2012 ant survey.

“The use of social media has really exciting potential for us and is something we hope to expand on for future years,” Dr Nesbit told BBC Nature.

“The similarity between the time of day people were tweeting about flying ants and the times they reported seeing them in our survey was quite striking.”

Results suggest a peak flying time of 18:00 was remarkably consistent between years and that there were no distinct differences across the UK.

“It appears that different summer weathers lead to different patterns of flying ants, and with more years’ worth of data we should be able to learn a lot more,” she said.

Biology Week is a series of events organised by the Society of Biology from 12 – 18 October.

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