The winged black ants that people usually see during the spring and summer months are not a species in and of themselves, as many people believe. While there are some winged ants, as a rule, the ones we see are merely regular ants that for a short time take to the air to mate. These winged ants may or may not be black, although black ants are commonly seen. It is also not uncommon to see large swarms of flying ants around trees, or other high places. Sometimes, they may even be seen in homes.
As social insects, ants colonize. A queen establishes these colonies, although most queens who attempt it don't survive, which is why there are initially so many females. The queen is a mature female who is initially winged and can live up to 15 years. After she mates she sheds the wings leaving only the wing muscles, which are used as a source of nutrients for her body to feed on while a colony is being developed. The colony grows and is established by non-sexual worker ants.
Rearing Potential Colonies
Once a colony is established - which takes several years - the colony will put its efforts into the formation of rearing new ants that are able to reproduce. These newly formed ants are the swarms of winged ants that people often see. Some are female, but the majority are males, the females are the potential queens of new colonies of ants. They can be identified as ants rather than termites by their elbowed antennae, a divided thorax, large head, and abdomen. The wings are also transparent with clearly visible veins.
The newly created ants remain within the nest until the proper time for mating occurs, which can be a couple of times a year. This is usually after a heavy three to five day rain. The swarming behavior triggers are often synchronized so that other colonies in the area emerge together. This means large numbers of flying ants can appear suddenly and disappear just as suddenly. The mating behavior commonly takes place all in one day at which time the males all die. The females however disperse and look for new areas to establish their own colonies.
Since flying ants tend to inundate an area where they mate, they often come into contact with people. This is especially true of ants that nest inside or near buildings as carpenter ants commonly do. Although ants do not sting, carpenter ants can give a painful bite with their pincers, and can spray formic acid into the bite, which can cause a painful sting. There are also some species of ants where workers always have wings that are never shed, so if you are seeing them all summer long you may have a nearby nest.
- Colorado State University: Flying Ants By Whitney Cranshaw
- University of Florida: Florida carpenter ant, bull ant, Tortugas carpenter ant
- U.S. Forest Service: Carpenter Ants: Insect Pests of Wood Products-November, 1982
- Orkin: Winged Ants
- University of California: How to Manage Pests Pests of Homes, Structures, People, and Pets
- University of Minnesota: Carpenter Ants Jeffrey Hahn, Colleen Cannon, and Mark Ascerno 2011
Lorelei Nettles has been writing since she was a child. She studied to write for children and began writing for "Virtual Christian Magazine" in 1997. In February of 2003 she took over as its managing editor. In 2008 Nettles published "Homeschooling and the Only Child" and has been a freelance writer since 1999.