Ant Swarm

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As I was watching a flock of Turkeys in my back yard I noticed a whole bunch of small insects in the air.  Kind of looked like a bee swarm, but with smaller bugs.  Upon closer inspection, they appeared to be ants.  Anybody know if this is a swarming ant?  Mr Ants?  How about the kind of ant?  Sorry for the poor quality of the photo, it’s the best one my cell phone took.  Goldenrod in the background.

Pretty sure they weren’t termites; luckily we don’t have many termites up here.  Is this the time of the season for an ant swarm?  I figured ants would have their swarming done by now. 

Those are parasitic queens from the genus Lasius. Basically they have to invade a host colony, a non-parasitic species of Lasius, and replace it's queen so the host workers raise her first brood. Because they're parasitic, colonies tend to produce 10 times more queens than their host species does. Thus you get these enormous nuptial flights in the afternoon hours. The species might be Lasius claviger or Lasius umbratus or a couple others. What's neat is the ones that don't find a host colony to invade will spend the winter just under rocks and logs pretty close to the surface. I've found them before in large groups with frost crystals on them, and they were still alive! You can find these queens wondering around well into next spring as they look for host colonies to invade. They mostly fail in their task but the ones that succeed go on to produce larger colonies than the host species, usually Lasius neoniger (found in sandy fields) or Lasius alienus (found in dead wood in forests).

Awesome answer MrAnts.  Thanks!  I figured if anybody knew, it would be you. 

How long do these ants generally keep their wings? 

Don't let the other beeks hear me, but sometimes it is amazing how much more there is to learn out there.

You mentioned that you didn't think that they were termites. There is an easy way to quickly check if it is a termite. The Latin name for termites means equal wing. Just take the wings in your drivers and spread them apart and if they are the same length, it is a termite.

Termites are occasionally confused with winged ants (Hymenoptera: Formicidae): termites have body segments that are similar in width, hair-like (filiform) antennae and, when present, four wings of equal length; ants have narrow waists, elbowed antennae and forewings that are longer than hind wings.

The way it's supposed to work is after the queen ant mates, either in the air, or after fanning pheromones from atop tall grasses where they perch, they're supposed to remove their wings right then and there. However, if they are interrupted shortly after landing, they may forgo removing them entirely. Usually queens that keep their wings on aren't successful because they carry the extra hazard of being attached to things easily if wet. Winged queens that are successful though will eventually ware them down to nubs. Regardless of removing them or not, they are not usable after their nuptial flight. The wing muscles are (not sure on the right word here) basically broken down, like they're not usable here.

Queen ants are like dandelion seeds. They take off with the wind and shed their mode of flight shortly after landing.

Ants vs. Termites are easy to tell apart. Ants have a waist segment and come in the colors black, red, orange, brown, and yellow (others too but they're not common). Termites, while they technically have three body segments, these segments are poorly defined, and their body color is most commonly white, while some will have pale yellow, or orange heads. Reproductive (King and Queen) termites will have darker bodies but their wings make an X pattern when flying. It's very noticeable once you learn to see it.

Ants are more closely related to Bees and Wasps, technically ants are just wingless wasps but that's confusing because there's another family of insects in this group that are "Wingless Wasps" often called Velvet Ants.

Ants vs. Velvet Ants.
Velvet ants, while they lack wings (though sometimes the males to specie are winged) all universally lack a waist segment. This is a body segment found between the thorax and "abdomen" (called a gaster on ants because the waist segment is technically part of the abdomen). It's just a segment of the abdomen that evolved to be really narrow to allow for better flexibility, some ant families even have two of them. Also All Velvet Ants are solitary! They're basically wasps that dig burrows in the sand and fill them with dead bugs, laying an egg in each chamber. Individual females sometimes band together but not often enough to be considered social, on par with the way adolescent birds sometimes help mom and dad feed the next generation. Ants are always social, with the exception of inquilin parasites that have lost their worker caste but even then they're living in a host colony of ants.

Ants vs. Wasps. There are some wasps that have waist segments, but they're never social. Potter wasps for instance have quite the narrow waist and it could be considered a segment but they're solitary, don't have a worker caste, and never shed their wings. Ants are always social, they almost always have a worker caste except for inquilin parasite species, and wings are only used to assist with mating. Ants even fly different! Wasps duck and maneuver in and out of foliage to hunt for caterpillars and forage, while queens ants are complete disasters when it comes to flight. Often when trying to take off, queen ants will spiral out of control and crash right into he ground a few times before finally making it into the air.


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