Last weekend I saw quite an unusual scene. I'm used to seeing bees, butterflies, mosquitoes, flies and horseflies flying around in the garden during the summer months, but never before ants doing the same.
I grabbed my camera and recorded what I saw. It seemed to be like a well-coordinated action in different parts of the garden. I saw initially them coming out of the ground close to the outdoors staircase. Then out of the wall. Nearby on the rose bushes. On the field. I combined the best clips on the field into the following film:
What is going on, I wondered? After a bit of research on Google, I discovered that I had just witnessed "Flying Ant Day", which is the day of the nuptial flight of ants.
Wikipedia has some great insights on nuptial flight on the topic:
Nuptial flight is an important phase in the reproduction of most ant, termite, and some bee species. It is also observed in some fly species, such as Rhamphomyia longicauda.
During the flight, virgin queens mate with males and then land to start a new colony, or, in the case of honey bees, continue the succession of an existing hived colony.
And like airlines have pre-flight, during flight and post-flight information on their websites, what to expect, then the same wiki article continues:
Before the flight
A mature ant colony seasonally produces winged virgin queens and males, called alates. Unfertilized eggs develop into males. Fertilized eggs usually develop into wingless, sterile workers, but may develop into virgin queens if the larvae receive special attention.
Within a few days after they have emerged (eclosed) from the pupa case, males are "quickly converted into single-purpose sexual missiles."Young queens and males stay in their parent colony until conditions are right for the nuptial flight. The flight requires clear weather since rain is disruptive for flying insects. Different colonies of the same species often use environmental cues to synchronize the release of males and queens so that they can mate with individuals from other nests, thus reducing inbreeding. The actual "take off" from the parent colony is also often synchronized to overwhelm their predators.
Indeed, it was a very nice, dry, sunny day. And interestingly enough I could identity 5 colonies, which all had selected that particular day and time to use for their flights.
During the flight
Typically the virgin queens and males first scatter to ensure outcrossing. The queens then release pheromones to attract males. However, the queens often try to escape the males, allowing only the fastest and the fittest males to mate. Mating takes place during flight.
One queen usually mates with several males. The sperm is stored in a special organ, known as a spermatheca, in the queen's abdomen, and lasts throughout her lifetime. This can be as long as 20 years, during which time the sperm can be used to fertilize tens of millions of eggs.
You could see how they were crossing each other quickly indeed. However, this is interesting that they are mating during the flight, not on the ground or any steady surface. In a way, I'm happy that I'm not an ant and a human instead - this way one can enjoy these intimate rituals not only once, but way more frequently. But ants are certainly more efficient if you consider the end production output - having tens of millions of eggs fertilised after just one session.
After the flight
The males have evolved for the single purpose of inseminating the queen. During "the quick and violent mating," the male literally explodes his internal genitalia into the genital chamber of the queen and quickly dies.
Again another good reason to be a human - you don't explode your genitalia during intercourse and in 99.9% likely stay alive after the mating.
The young mated queens land and, in the case of most ants and all termites, remove their wings. They then attempt to found a new colony. The details of this vary from species to species, but typically involve the excavation of the colony's first chamber and the subsequent laying of eggs. From this point, the queen continuously lays eggs that hatch into larvae, exclusively destined to develop into worker ants. The queen usually nurses the first brood alone. After the first workers appear, the queen's role in the colony typically becomes one of exclusive (and generally continuous) egg-laying.
The young queens have an extremely high failure rate. During its lifetime a very large ant colony can send out millions of virgin queens. Assuming that the total number of ant colonies in the area remains constant, on average only one of these queens succeeds. The rest are destroyed by predators (most notably other ants), environmental hazards or failures in raising the first brood at various stages of the process. This strict selection ensures that the queen has to be both extremely fit and extremely lucky to pass on her genes to the next generation.
It seems like the winner queens are like unicorns in a way. Many startups fail, but then you have again some that succeed and succeed in a big way. Who in this picture are the VCs? If queens are startups, are VCs then the males who explored their genitalia (read: cash) into the queen with the hope to make it big one day? And could we then say that Flying Ants Day is in a way a Demo Day, just in ants universe?