Flying ant day 'a summer myth', scientists say

Flying ants The study involved examining 6,000 sightings in the UK

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The notion of an annual flying ant day, when swarms of ants emerge and take to the air in mass mating flights, is a "myth", scientists say.

UK summer data gathered by the Society of Biology shows two peaks in flying ant appearances over one fortnight.

They mapped 6,000 flying ant sightings, made by members of the public this year, to learn about ant behaviour.

The team now hopes to repeat the study in future years so that the scientists can draw firmer conclusions.

The survey was organised by the Society of Biology with the results announced as part of Biology Week, which runs until Friday.

The main findings to be drawn from the study concern the black garden ant (Lasius niger), the most common ant species in the UK.

Some of the results have surprised the experts.

"Even over a small area emergences happened on different days, suggesting that local synchronisation is not as precise as is widely believed," said Professor Adam Hart, an ecologist at University of Gloucestershire, who presented the results of the survey at a Biology Week event.

Colonial rule

Ants silhouetted on a branch

"We found a relationship between flying ant swarms and weather conditions, which we expected, and geographical variation, which we didn't expect," he said.

The flying ants that appear over the summer are a mixture of males and potential queens embarking on their "nuptial" or "mating" flight, in the first step to founding a new colony.

The figures show that one-fifth of sightings happened on Tuesday 24 July 2012 with another fifth being recorded two weeks later on Wednesday 8 August 2012.

In the time between the two peaks, an area of low pressure moved across the UK.

Low pressure periods cause more wind and rain, and this may have discouraged the ants from emerging.

Although the the experts did not find any evidence of a UK-wide trend there were some elements to the ants' behaviour that were common.

One "very consistent" factor was found to be the time of day at which they emerged: normally between 4pm and 6pm.

"Mid-afternoon flights make sense: this gives them enough time to find somewhere to hide but not too much time for exposure to predators," said Prof Hart.

But it may be too soon to throw out the idea of a single emergence altogether.

"Although [a single] flying ant day across the country is a bit of a myth, actually there's a fairly tight window pretty much nationally when they're coming out," said Prof Hart.

"If you look at the data you don't need to take a very large number of days on either side before you can account for over 80% of all sightings," he said.

Flying ants with pupae Black garden ant (Lasius niger) workers with pupae and winged queen ants about to leave the nest

With more data from future surveys, the scientists hope they will be able to fully understand what determines how the ants behave.

"It's all the variation that makes the data really interesting because that variation starts to tell us about some of the rules and some of the factors that influence the way these ants behave - so it's the variation really that's actually the most important thing."

"Really what we'd want to look at now is multiple years. We want to run this again, we want to see these double emergences for example - is that just related to the weather or is that a common phenomenon?" said Prof Hart.

The rise of "citizen science" - research performed by non-professionals - has made research possible that could not have been done in the past.

It allowed the Society of Biology to have "people everywhere at all times", said Prof Hart.

"These results show the power of data collected by volunteers. By looking out for flying ants and taking a few minutes to fill out our survey they allowed us to do research which scientists couldn't possibly do on their own," said Dr Mark Downs, Chief Executive of the Society of Biology.

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