Is there such a thing as "flying ant day"?

Submitted by editor on 27 June 2018. Get the paper!
We found that ants emerge throughout the summer, not just on one set day a year. Photo credit:

By Adam Hart

Back in 2012, while digging up a leaf-cutting ant nest in Trinidad for a BBC documentary I was making, I got an email from Becky Nesbit who was at that time the press officer for The Society (now The Royal Society) of Biology. The Society were hoping to start a citizen science campaign across the summer of 2012 that would grab the public’s attention and contribute to scientific understanding. Given I was surrounded by ants at the time, it is perhaps no surprise that the first thing that sprang to mind was ant-related.

Every summer in the UK the emergence of winged reproductive ants in their annual nuptial flights (“flying ants”) fascinates and horrifies the public in equal measure. We are apparently being “invaded” by “swarms” of insects, “infested” and otherwise inconvenienced on “flying ant day”. The media is awash with flying ant stories and yet the scientific literature on the coordination and synchrony of these flights and their environmental triggers was not as rich as I had imagined.

It is understandable that most studies of flying ants had been quite limited in terms of space and time. After all, it is hard to monitor mass emergence events without having large number of observers. With their broad public interest and nationwide occurrence, and some gaps in our knowledge, flying ants seemed like a perfect choice for the citizen science campaign – and so was born The Flying Ant Survey.

As is often the case, we were suddenly up against a deadline and with flying ants that deadline was imposed by evolution. Extensions were unlikely to be granted. Working out our scientific aims, we devised an online survey to capture the data we needed to examine the synchronicity, coordination and environmental triggers that underpin winged ant emergence in the UK. Of course, since we relied on the public we also had to let them know, so we also drafted a press release.

It is fair to say that none of us were quite ready for the attention we received following our press release. For whatever reason, the media went crazy for flying ants that year and I had to put my phone down more than once because of the temperature it reached! It was full-on for at least two weeks, with interviews on more than 50 local radio channels, local and national TV and countless press and online interviews. Flying ants ruled my life that summer but it was worth it as the data rolled in.

With thousands of reports in year 1 we had to run the survey again. In 2013 we asked some contributors from the previous year to send us samples of the ants they reported so that we could identify species – cue thousands of ants coming to us through the post! We also ran the survey in 2014, when another slow year brought us another press deluge and yet more data points.

Once all the analysis was done, it was satisfying to end up with some interesting and useful insights into winged ant emergences – and all achieved through the power of the public. Citizen science isn’t the answer to everything, and it does has its problems and detractors, but to study mass emergences happening at a national scale it has certainly proved itself as a viable and useful ecological method.

Whether ants flew seemed to be determined both by temperature and wind speed. Science photo library.