It is a curse for many drivers when the termites, or flying ants as they are commonly referred to, decide to leave the sanctity of their underground nests and take to the air, many of which end up smearing their butter-like bodies against a vehicle’s windscreen. So, what is the reason for these mass flights?
A mature colony produces winged virgin queens and winged males where the queens are produced from fertilized eggs and the males from unfertilized eggs. Several of the fertilized eggs develop into wingless sterile worker ants.
When environmental conditions are right, usually after rain, the nuptial flights occur. Different colonies see the emergence of these winged males and females thereby mixing different colonies together which prevents inbreeding. Synchronized ‘take-off’ is another effective tool used to overwhelm predators.
During the flight the queens release pheromones to attract the males but she also tries to avoid them ensuring that only the fastest and fittest of the males will breed with them. Mating occurs during the flight and the queen may mate with many males, storing their sperm in her spermatheca, a specialized organ situated within her abdomen. This sperm will last her lifetime, as long as 20 years, and be used to fertilize tens of millions of eggs.
After this happens the males, whose sole purpose was to mate, simply die as they cannot even feed themselves for the remaining few days of their lives. During ‘the quick and violent mating’, the male literally explodes his internal genitalia into the genital chamber of the queen and quickly dies.
The young queens then land and remove their wings and attempt to form a new colony. Depending on the species this happens when she excavates the colonies first chamber in which to lay her eggs. From this point on the queens sole purpose is to lay eggs which become worker ants. The queen usually nurses the first brood alone.
Failure rate amongst young queens is very high as the larger colonies will literally send out millions of virgin queens. Those that fail to start a colony are usually killed by predators, more often than not by other ants. Unfavourable environmental conditions may lead to the failure of the first brood resulting in her being unable to initiate a colony. Only the extremely lucky and extremely fit are able to pass on their genes to future generations.