Watch out for flying ants - swarms take to skies for mating ritual
The West Country's humid end to the summer has spawned an invasion of flying ant, experts said today.
Billions of the tiny winged insects are taking to the skies in mass swarms for their annual mating ritual.
The common black garden ants have emerged from nests nationwide over the last few days, frustrating homeowners and beer garden drinkers.
The recent humid weather has triggered the ant's annual summer mating ritual where both queen and male ants grow wings before embarking on a 'nuptial flight'.
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The flying ants are sexually active males and females who have waiting all summer for the perfect conditions to swarm - warm, muggy, and almost pre-thunderous weather.
Once some ants begin to fly, other ants detect their chemical smell and join them, with swarms often lasting all day.
The insects then reproduce in their billions before the queens lose their wings and find somewhere to lay eggs for a new colony as the males die.
Once a queen has mated, she remains fertile for the rest of her life. She bites off her wings and tries to find somewhere to begin a new nest.
She may often be killed by rival colonies, but if successful, she lays eggs in her hiding place.
These eggs hatch into infertile female workers who will build her nest, forage for food and guard their queen.
Over the winter the colony becomes dormant - although it is never fully asleep.
In the spring, the queen starts to produce fertile and winged females and males. These are cared for by the workers until it is time for the next swarm.
A spokesman for the zoology department of University of Bristol revealed that people have nothing to fear from the ants.
He said: ''These ant swarms are primarily triggered by a combination of temperature and humidity and when the weather is right they emerge simultaneously.
''Insects are very sensitive to humidity and the muggy weather we have experienced recently is perfect for flying ants.
''The swarms usually last 1-3 days and occur between late July and early August - but this can differ depending on regional weather systems.
''The entire species synchronises mating so that males and females from different nests can meet and prevent interbreeding.
''When mating is over the queen ants crawl off and lay their eggs while the males just die - that's their only job.''
Common black garden ants - latin name Lasius niger - nest underground or in rotten wood and up to 15,000 workers can live in each colony.
Queen ants grow up to 9mm long and can live for 12 years while male worker ants, which can grow to 5mm long, die after mating.
There are around 50 species of ant in Britain - including the common black and red ants. Although they are unpopular in homes, they are not technically a pest and do not carry diseases.
However, they are not always good news for rose lovers. Because they enjoy feeding off the sweet secretions of aphids they encourage aphids and deter ladybirds.
* Although black ants can bite, they usually ignore people unless their nests are being disturbed.
* Red ants sting victims with a droplet of burning formic acid - the same ingredient used in limescale remover. Some birds put red ants in the feathers to get rid of fleas and mites.
* Ants carry no diseases and they not a pest - but pollinate flowers and feed on other nuisance insects in the garden.
* Ants can "farm" aphids - bringing them into their nests to milk them for the sticky secretion honeydew.
* They are also grow fungi in their nests, bringing in leaves that fungus can grow on. When a queen quits the nest to find a new home, she takes a sample with her to start the new fungus farm
* Nuptial flights often take place in hot, humid weather - giving rise to folklore that ants can foretell a thunderstorm.
* Ants must be cooked before eating to destroy the formic acid they squirt at enemies.
* The combined weight of every ant in the world is greater than the combined weight of every human.
* An ant has the largest brain for an insect, relative to its size. It has more processing power than the computer that controlled the first Nasa moon mission.
* An ant brain has 250,000 brain cells compared to a human's 10 billion. A colony of 40,000 ants has the same collective brain size as a person.
* An ant has the strength to carry food up to seven times their own body weight