You have seen a single ant with wings or a swarm of winged ants and now you are wondering why some ants can fly and others don´t
Don’t worry, you are not looking at a new species of flying mutant ants that are planning to take over the world. If you found flying ants in your home, you should guide them outside, because they might be planning to build a new colony.
As a whole, ants with wings are usually virgin queens and male drones that leave their colony in order to start a new one. This happens in a so-called nuptial flight when male drones and future queen ants are mature and leave the colony in swarms to mate and build new colonies.
The winged ants you saw can be either a drone male ant or a virgin queen ant, looking for a nice place for their new ant-family. The normal ant-workers you see on the ground and in their colonies are female and have no wings.
Why do Some Ants Have Wings?
Almost every species of ants develop some ants with wings at some point.
Every ant colony consists of different types of ants with different purposes.
Usually, a colony has one queen, many female workers, and male drones.
The queen is female and her purpose is to build a new colony or keep the old one alive. It is her duty to lay as many eggs as possible in order to establish her colony.
The eggs develop into workers, drones, or new queen ants.
New queen ants are born with wings and they take off in so-called nuptial flights where they mate with one or multiple male ants before landing in a new location where they throw off their wings and try to establish a new colony.
Workers are female and sterile. They develop from fertilized eggs, laid by the queen.
Unfertilized eggs, laid by the queen, develop into male ants. Those are called drones, and they also have wings. Their only purpose is to take flight during the nuptial flight and mate with a female queen. After mating, they usually land somewhere and die.
Do All Queen Ants Have Wings
Queen ants are the biggest ants in their colony and the most protected ones at that. Without their queen, a colony will die, because she is the only one who can lay eggs that develop into new ants.
As a whole, queen ants in established colonies don´t have wings anymore. Almost every queen ant starts her life with wings that she uses to fly away from her old colony to mate and establish a new one. After mating, she loses her wings and spends the rest of her life underground.
The queen ant is usually in the center of the nest and highly protected by the other ants. She does not crawl around a lot like the others and stays hidden in dark and humid places in the nest.
Queen ants in established colonies do not have wings anymore, but you can recognize them by their size.
Most queen ants are born with wings. They need their wings to leave the colony they were born into. Shortly after settling down, they will lose their wings.
An exception to this rule is the army ant. This species only produces male ants with wings while the virgin queen ants remain unwinged and leave the mother colony together with some workers in order to establish a new colony.
Is There a King Ant?
There is so much talk about queen ants and how important they are for the colony but when there are queen ants are there also king ants?
No, there are no king ants. Male ants that are able to mate are called drones. They have wings and mate with the queen ant once before they inevitably die. The queen will then establish her own colony without any makes ants by her side.
The queen lays all the eggs that develop into workers, drones, and new queens.
There is no need for a king and in an ant colony.
What is a Nuptial Flight?
The nuptial flight is the time in which the queen ants mate with male ants in order to start a new colony. Winged virgin queens and winged male drones leave the colony and can be seen as big swarms flying away in all directions when the time is right.
The drones and princess ants stay in their colony after they are mature and wait for the perfect weather conditions to take off.
It has to be a dry day with a little wind going to support the nuptial flight.
In order to reduce inbreeding, ant colonies of the same type often send out their winged ants at the same time so that the princesses can mate with males from other colonies.
The mating process happens during the flight. After mating, the male drones have accomplished their task and die shortly after.
The queen will now start looking for a good place to start a new colony.
Only very few queens succeed in starting a new colony. The rest is eaten by predators.
That’s why you see so many queens take flight during the nuptial flight. Only very few will actually survive.
Why do Flying Ants Suddenly Appear?
You might have already witnessed this phenomena where some days in the summer there seem to be a lot of flying ants around and the next months you don´t see any flying ants anymore. But why is that?
Flying ants suddenly appear in big swarms because ant colonies send out their drones and virgin queens on a specific day to mate and create new colonies. This is called the nuptial flight and happens once each year for every ant species. These flying ants will then either die or lose their wings to create new colonies.
The weather has to be right for a successful napture flight.
It has to be a warm, humid but dry day, ideally with a gentle wind. Once the nuptial flight is over the flying ants will either die or create new colonies.
Warm temperatures make it easier for the ants to fly, humidity makes it easier for the queens to dig new nests and the wind supports their flight.
Often many ant colonies send out the winged drones and queens around the same time of the year, usually in summer around July and August. This is why you might all of a sudden see thousands and thousands of flying ants.
By the way we have a full guide on how to catch a queen ant if you are interested in keeping your own ant colony.
Lisa is one of the two founders of Animal-Knowledge. She has been very interested in animals and insects from a very young age and has owned different kinds of pets such as snails, ants, fish, turtles, mice, rats, hamsters, rabbits, a dog, … you get the idea 🙂