Standing beside the sunlit vineyard after the storm, the other day, I noticed a few bugs floating by on the slight breeze. Lovely day. I’m at work, talking away (politely) to clients and trying not to drift off into watching the kestrel floating down the valley, or the Sardinian warblers bickering in the olive tree. Now I find that, as I look over into the vineyard I can see plumes of insects rising from it, the wings catching the light. It looks bright and hopeful to see them drifting up into the air. I wonder what they are. One of my clients yelps and bats at something floating onto his ear, knocking it down. “Don’t worry,” I say hastily, “Only a flying ant.”
In the UK ants seem to fly en-masse – all the tens of thousands of nests in a single town bursting with busy, buggy, irritating, crawlers that fly incompetently but insistently until they seem to be raining up at and falling down on you like snow. And it all happens on a still, thick, sweaty, muggy day in August. This doesn’t charm anyone – put “flying ants” into Google and all you get is horror stories or adverts from pesticide producers.
We have plenty of unbelievable still hot days, right through summer and into autumn, but the ants don’t fly. My guess is here they are waiting for rain. Perhaps it is because the land becomes so hard-baked that digging out an ant-city, even for some of the planet’s best engineers, is a bit too tough. That would make the sunny day after a good day of storm and rain make some sense. I hope they got away before the wind got up in the late afternoon.
Flying ants, just like any rising cloud of mating insects, have no end of hazards to deal with. Everything wants to eat them. The things that don’t want to eat them (like us) want to squash them. If they live on – like the mated queens – they are dependent on luck wafting them to a good spot.
But ants are masters of making the most of a spot of luck. I remember a friend describing coming out for an early walk in autumn, with the sun just coming up. Another big cloud of insects – moths, she said – rising up (I wish I had been there to see what they were) had attracted a family of bats, who were flying through and over and under the plume, catching each insect with a quick snap and letting the wings fall gently to earth.
“I’d never been able to see bats hunting before,” my friend commented.
“Did you look at the wings? What moths were they?” I insisted
She laughed. She had looked for the wings. They were marching along in a nice orderly line – dozens and dozens of pale moth wings being recruited by the local ants under the motto “Waste not, want not.”