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winged ant

The Empire of the Ants

Monday, 4th August 2003, West Yorkshire

buddleia peacock butterfly It's peacock butterflies visiting the buddleia that tempted me down the garden on such a warm afternoon but itís excited small brown ants running around frantically, stopping only to greet each other, nose to nose, when they pass, that attract my attention down at the compost bin.

ants on the compost binwinged ants emergingI've seen this frantic activity before: sure enough, when I look at the centre of the compost heap, there are crowds of winged ants gathered in a couple of spots at the top of the heap. Individuals manoeuvre themselves to the peak of a pile of grass stems and launch themselves into the air. It's 5.30 p.m., there's a clear blue sky and only a hint of a breeze. These are the ideal conditions for the excited ground crew of worker ants to launch their precious squadron of flying ants.

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winged antsThere are no birds taking advantage of this potential food source, but perhaps that's because Iím sitting here.

Half an hour later and the little crowd I drew has become a multitude, milling around all along the end of the compost bin. Every second one, two or more launch themselves. It's a bit like a parachute invasion but in reverse. Sometimes 5 take off at once, almost as if there's been a signal: 'Gerrrr - onimo!!!'

A wasp buzzes against my legs but doesn't take any interest in the nearby melee.

As the frenzied action mounts I notice a few larger ants - they must be the queens, the males have been sent out first - start to appear. They're like bombers compared to fighter planes, their bodies like plump sausages compared with the little cocktail variety when you compare them with the smaller winged males (which appear in my sketches).

As I say, the females are plump and of course each is making her first flight. I watch one ant queen shrug off a few males to find herself a space at the edge of the heap. She goes into pre-flight checks, opens her four gossamer wings, flies elegantly an inch or two out from the edge of the heap . . . and plummets downwards! next page

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Richard Bell