Winged Brown Ants

2013 December 18

On August 12, 2012, the whole family was bicycling along the trail that runs beside Portage Lake. As we were coming up on where the trail crosses the Pilgrim River, we ran into swarms of these little black insects:

They got stuck all over our clothes as we smacked into them. Unfortunately, I’d forgotten to bring either a camera or collection bottles with us, but there were still enough stuck to my shirt when I got home that I could photograph them.

They were just little fellows, with bodies only about 3-4 mm long (close to 1/8 inch).

I say “fellows” because of what they were doing: they were mating with much-larger winged brown ant queens. These were also hitting us and getting stuck on our clothes, and most of them had one of the little black fellows attached to the tips of their abdomens. The queens were about twice as long as the males, and roughly eight times as massive.

I unfortunately didn’t get any of the queens home at the time, but a bit later, on August 23, I captured a few other winged female ants at home while sweep-netting through the tall grass. I can’t be sure they are the same ants, but they do look pretty much like what I remember the females from August 12 looking like[1]:

I’m not sure if the little worker ant with her is the same species (it seems like kind of a coincidence if they are, given that I caught them by sweeping them randomly off of stalks of grass rather than by actually collecting them from their nest entrance), but they sure do seem chummy, and the color scheme is right.

Anyway, after mating, the queens twist off their wings. You can see the wing scars on the sides of this one, they hadn’t fully healed over yet.

The reason they remove their wings is that they are never going to need them again, and they will just get in the way when they burrow underground.

The new queens of these particular ants burrow underground, and dig out a little cavity where they hang out. I tried keeping some of them in a jar of soil, but they never did anything. I’ve found them in the past under rocks, and they seemed to be hibernating. They may very well overwinter as a single queen, who then lays eggs to hatch a small group of workers that emerge in the spring. A lot of ant queens don’t actually feed during this time, using their now-useless wing muscles as an energy source to produce secretions to feed to her young workers. These initial workers (who may be tinier than normal workers) then go out and collect food, and commence feeding the queen and the grubs from the additional eggs that she lays.

Given their appearance, and the time of year that they were making their mating flight, I expect that these are ants in the genus Lasius, which includes the Cornfield Ants and the Citronella Ants[2]. A lot of these are subterranean ants that cultivate root-feeding aphids, and so their workers would spend most of their time underground. This might be one of the reasons I couldn’t get the queens to establish colonies – they didn’t have access to any aphids.

[1] Swarms of winged ants that look like these occur every year around here, right around the middle of August.

[2] I once tried eating one of these flying queen ants just to see how they taste (and because Sandy dared me to). When eaten raw, they are a bit sour, like a tiny little piece of lemon. Hence the name “citronella ant”. The sourness is probably formic acid.

4 Responses
  1. Carole permalink
    December 18, 2013

    Thanks for sharing all the information. I appreciate ants but know very little about them.

  2. December 19, 2013

    Ants? If you see James Whitmore, run!

  3. December 19, 2013

    KT: While I liked “Them!” just fine, I think that H. G. Wells’ story (not the movie!) “Empire of the Ants” is a much more plausible killer-ants-take-over-the-world story.

  4. December 19, 2013

    Carole: Since most of what I wrote about were things that I found out in the course of writing this posting, I probably learned at least as much as you from this!

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