When Ants Fly

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One of the most well-known terrestrial animals must surely be the humble ant, which occupies every land mass except Antarctica. They have been known to become airborne though, even if it is just for a short period of their lifecycle. During particularly wet and humid summer days, hundreds of these insects take to the air in a bizarre mating dance. 

In South Africa, it is common for the ground to erupt with hordes of flying insects during the rainy season. So much so, that play was halted during the semi-final game of the 2009 ICC Champions Trophy, due to the appearance of so many flying ants that the cricketers' visibility was diminished.

These caramel-coloured creatures, that we call flying ants, are in fact termites - a common sight during the summer and considered to be a harbinger of rain. True flying ants are wasp-like in appearance with black bodies.

Although termites (neoptera) and ants (hymenoptera) are not related, they both make use of this airborne reproductive method, although the female termite (queen) will keep her chosen mate for life, whereas the ant queen, just keeps his sperm.

Each colony of termites consists of a queen and her king, workers, soldiers and the winged caste, called alates. These winged termites, of both genders, leave the nest in droves shortly after maturity. They literally fly until their wings drop off, whereupon they mate with their chosen partners and start to dig a new colony in a suitable venue. In favourable conditions these colonies can turn into the formidably sized termite mounds that are often seen in the open veld.

Once impregnated, and safely ensconced in her own colony, the queen termite can lay up to 30 000 eggs a day – quickly populating her domain with a community of workers, soldiers and alates to continue the cycle.

With such a rapid rate of reproduction, it is difficult to believe that the planet has not been overrun by these insects. Termites do have their enemies though - almost everything eats them, including man. In Uganda and Zambia, they are considered a delicacy and are dished up fried, steamed or dried. These insects are easily caught by hunters with lights to attract them and brooms to sweep them up.

Drumming on the ground is also said to lure a particular species from its comfort zone inside the colony, and each tribe has their own fool proof method of capturing these tasty morsels. 

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Thursday, 24 May 2018