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Nature Notebook – Winged Ants

Exterminator companies probably experienced a recent increase of panicked calls as people noticed large swarms of winged insects that looked like termites. Although termites do periodically form swarms such as these, most likely the insects were winged ants.

Winged ants are not a different species. They are males and virgin queens (sometimes called princesses) that are produced when a colony reaches a certain density. They pace around the nest like bored teenagers waiting for a signal. When that signal, a species-specific combination of weather conditions, occurs they emerge en masse with those from other colonies of the same species.

The millions of individuals involved in the mating flight ensure a healthy mixing of genetic material and provides quite a spectacle for humans to observe. To the consternation of homeowners, occasionally wayward fliers make their way into houses.

The princesses release pheromones to attract drones but then play hard-to-get so that only the fastest and fittest males are able to mate. Each princess will mate with several males before ending her nuptial flight. These newly fertilized queens land, chew off their wings and start a new colony. The drones all die in one or two days.