October 18, 2012
Flying Ant Swarms Linked To Weather Conditions, Geographical Variation
April Flowers for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
A new study from the UK claims that the idea of an annual flying ant day, "when swarms of ants emerge and take to the air in a mass mating flight," is a myth.
According to BBC News, data gathered by the Society of Biology showed two peaks in ant flying appearances over a two-week period. The team mapped 6,000 sightings made by members of the public this year in an attempt to understand ant behavior. They hope to repeat the study in future summers to be able to draw firmer conclusions.
The public survey was organized as part of Biology Week, which runs through Friday, and mainly concerns the black garden ant, Lasius niger. This is the most common ant species in the UK. The results of this study even surprised the scientists.
"Even over a small area emergences happened on different days, suggesting that local synchronization is not as precise as is widely believed," Professor Adam Hart told BBC's Matt Bardo. Hart is an ecologist at University of Gloucestershire and presented the results of the survey at a Biology Week event.
"We found a relationship between flying ant swarms and weather conditions, which we expected, and geographical variation, which we didn't expect," he said.
A mixture of males and potential queens, the flying ants that appear over the summer are embarking on their mating flight, an important first step to founding a new colony.
The results of the survey show that one-fifth of sightings happened on July 24, 2012, and another fifth two weeks later on August 8, 2012. An area of low pressure moved across the UK in the time between the two peaks.
The ants may have been discouraged from emerging by the low-pressure system, which causes more wind and rain. The research team did not find evidence of a nationwide trend, however, there were common elements to the ants' behavior.
The time of day that they emerge was found to be very consistent: between 4 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," Prof Hart told Bardo.
Hart says not to toss out the idea of a single emergence all together.
"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.
Future survey data will allow the scientists to more fully understand what motivates and determines ant behavior.
"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 use of citizen scientists has made possible research that could not have been done in the past and many scientific institutions are jumping on the bandwagon. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently had a call out for citizen scientists willing to sift through images in search of tornado data, for example.
"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," Dr Mark Downs, Chief Executive of the Society of Biology, told Damien Gayle of the Daily Mail. "Thank you to everyone who submitted their results."