One warm day in August I noticed that there was a lot of ant activity in the garden. I hadn’t seen so many since the time of the ant superhighway to and from the compost heap. That had long since been disbanded as the ants elected to work from home and moved on mass into the composter. They left a select few behind who gathered conspiratorially under Sooty’s litter tray. If I lifted the base up in order to clean it, there was always a huddle of ants who moved rapidly away in all directions. They soon came back though to continue their conversation, as I would find them all there again the following week.
Now there were tiny ants moving in unregimented circles around the patio, like a fire alarm had gone off. I put down my book to watch and as I did so I noticed that some of the ants were wearing new shiny wings. They seemed to be unfamiliar with this new dimension and just moved round in tight circles or stopped altogether. The non-winged ants appeared to be flight engineers of some kind and rushed round getting them all moving again. It looked like they were giving them some type of pep talk as they stood nose to nose for a few seconds. If that didn’t work, they simply pulled them along for a while until the winged ant decided it could walk unaided and off it went at a fair old lick round in circles again.
As far as I could tell none of the winged ants had been given any instructions to climb up something tall in order to take off. They stayed earth bound even when I got the broom out of the shed so that they could climb up the handle. I did wonder whether this was all just a dress rehearsal as usually there were swarms of them on take-off day, but there were only a handful in my garden. One tiny winged chap found my leg and climbed up as far as my knee. Then I helped him out by letting him climb onto my hand and I held my arm up high so that he could catch the breeze. He walked along my hand to the tip of my thumb and looked over the edge. It was a long way down for a tiny ant and he decided not to risk it and turned from the cliff edge just as a gust of wind caught under his wings and he was gone.
There were two flattened winged ants on the ground nearby and I wondered if I had trodden on them on my way to the shed. A couple of engineer ants had hurried over and little by little they were getting them back on their feet. Once they got them moving, the engineers gave them a tow out to the flat plains of a patio slab and with shiny wings glinting in the sun, they started to walk again in random directions. The engineers then turned their attention to a tiny winged fellow who was prostrate on the floor. He didn’t move when they gave him the pep talk, nor did he move when they tried to pull him along. He looked like a gonna to me, but they didn’t give up and discussed among themselves what they should do. They were still attempting a full recovery when the first rain drop fell and the whole project was called off. As large raindrops splattered over the patio all the ants gradually disappeared leaving their winged companions to their fate. Ah well, being chosen to receive wings was always a dubious honour. If you are male then you have one chance to mate before you crash and burn. If you are the female queen then it could be you who was chosen to start a new colony providing that you didn’t get eaten by a bird beforehand. These little guys had clearly got their dates wrong which is why no-one else came out to join them. They are triggered by the temperature and all take flight on the same day so that ants from different colonies can mate and improve the gene pool of the new colony.
The next day I found a lone winged ant climbing up the pole of the garden umbrella. Any moment now and he would be high enough for take off. You had to admire his perseverance, if not his timing. As the aim of the activity was to mate on the wing, this chap was going to find life very lonely. None of the engineers were out so the operation had clearly been called off. It was Sunday and the day I clean out Sooty’s litter tray. As I lifted the base I was surprised to find that all the conspirator ants had gone, leaving only a couple of spiders in their place. Perhaps they were the steering committee for flight day and had fled in disgrace at their poor management. As ants are one of the most successful species on earth and are likely to outlive us humans with our haphazard and destructive social structures, I will not worry unduly about their survival. I guess that sometimes we all mess up.