Thanks for your cool site. It's nuptial flight day for the ants that live under our patio (I don't know what species they are, but they seem to be normal for the south of England where I live.) The queens and males are milling around a lot before they take off, opening up their wings and then not being very successful at flying to start with. Whilst they're doing this, there are loads of worker ants rushing around them, and quite often coming up to them and touching them (with their antennae I think, but it's hard to see in detail) often 'face to face' but sometimes on the queens' legs or on the backs of their wings. Why are they doing this? Are they giving them directions? Encouragement? Licking off dirt? My mum thinks they're biting them to make them want to fly away. Hope you can enlighten us.
All the best,
Thank you for your very keen observations! Without knowing exactly what species of ants these are or under what precise conditions this event happened to take place (not to mention how the whole thing eventually played out) it's difficult to say with any degree of certainty whether this was in fact a "planned" nuptial flight or a kind of "false start" initiated by impatient alates.
Assuming that the weather and time of day was favorable to the release of the colony's winged reproductives (virgin queens and males), your suppositions are right on the mark. Obsessive grooming of this sort would have served both to motivate the already restless assembly of sexuals as well as to ensure that said sexuals--prospective progenitors of future generations--were free of any dirt and bacteria, and therefore fit to spawn a new colony.
However, in the absence of all the appropriate environmental cues, worker ants will actively interfere to prevent the over-eager alates from taking flight prematurely, in many cases physically grounding them or dragging them back to the nest. This might explain why the workers appeared to be "biting" the queens as you mother observed, but in this scenario it would have been a form of discouragement rather than persuasion.
In theory, the timing of these seasonal nuptial flights is dependent on just the right combination of circumstances--humidity, wind speed, time of day, temperature, probability of rainfall, etc.--and is uniformly observed across different colonies of the same species to maximize the likelihood of interbreeding. When workers perceive that conditions are not entirely auspicious for a successful, synchronized launch, they will forcibly keep the queens and males at bay.
As a UK-based witness of this extraordinary phenomenon, you might be interested in the Society of Biology's "flying ant survey", an initiative that seeks to document appearances of nuptial flights around the country and thus decode the various stimuli that are believed to influence these mysteriously well-timed events. The link featured in the above article will direct you to a page where you can record the date, time and precise location of your sighting, in addition to the type of weather you remember experiencing at the time.
The survey assumes that the ants in question are black garden ants, Lasius niger, but given your remark about the species being fairly common in the region and recalling that you observed the event in late July, I wouldn't be surprised if this was the same species.
Thanks for your interest!
Alexandra Westrich & the AntAsk Team