THE FLIGHT OF THE UNDERGROUND QUEEN

Diarmuid Breatnach

                                                          They had been preparing for this for some time. The infants were selected, received special care and food and were raised carefully in the Palace chambers inside the Citadel. They were now adolescents, maturing sexually. As the time approached for their great expedition, the tunnels leading to the departure terminal were widened and cleared of all obstructions. Experts tested the weather conditions daily and, when the majority of these were in agreement, the Queen gave the order to launch.

The adolescents took off then, a great host of them, amidst great excitement. Their pheromones, male and female, filled the air around them and those who could, which was most of them, quickly found a partner and coupled. It was a maiden flight from which the adolescent females would land no longer maidens.  

Those who would land, that is.  For suddenly the air was filled with giant flying monsters with huge eyes and giant whirring wings.  Much more accustomed to flight, these monsters flew among them, gobbling them up.  Some even held rows of their hapless victims in their huge beaks as they flew off to feed them to their young.  Hundreds, perhaps thousands of the little flyers perished in minutes. 

Those who managed to land safely and didn’t end up drowning in a lake or a river, or snapped by denizens of the deep who sprang up at them as they passed overhead, or caught in sticky webs, or who were not stamped carelessly to death by huge walking giants or flattened by roaring, stinking monsters, still had to contend with smaller predators on the ground. The casualty rate was huge but some made it alive – some always did.

The males who made it down to ground safely would all die within a couple of days. Their wings were only intended for their nuptial flight; on the ground, they were nothing more than a nuisance, impeding their progress over and underground.

The females, sexually sated and no longer interested, had left their male partners behind. They bit off their own wings, ate them and, quickly finding some reasonably soft ground, began to dig. Each one dug down as though her life depended on it, which of course it did; and not only her own life – each one was pregnant. Then she blocked the entrance to her tunnel, went back down it, excavated a chamber and began to lay eggs. It was completely dark down there but she had been reared in darkness – she had one day of daylight only, the day she flew.

The young grubs who hatched were all females. She supplied them with some sparse nutrition from herself and cared for them as they grew, shed skin, grew … until they spun a cocoon from which they emerged as very small worker ants. They were infertile workers and tended to their large mother, their Queen; even when they were fully-grown she was still one-and-a-half times their size, although about half the size she had been when she left her old nest. Her most recent meal had been her own wings the day she had flown and mated. If she got past this crucial stage, she would recover her size and weight and lay more and more eggs.  

The workers soon went up the tunnel, unblocked it and spilled out into daylight for the first time in their lives, beginning to forage for food. They found small seeds and, if they were lucky, sweet material such as soft-skinned ripe or rotting fruit. They soon had their surroundings covered with their hive-scent, carried by each and every worker. Sometimes they found insects they could kill but these had to be very small indeed – these workers had been fed on insufficient nutrition and were, compared to the majority of their kind, puny. If they found a food-source worth another visit, they left a specially-scented trail on their way back to their home, to guide theirs sisters back to the prize later. A rich source of food typically would show two streams of traffic between their nest and the food – one emptyjawed heading for the food and the other, with pieces in their jaws, heading away from it and towards the nest.  The food gathered by the workers fed them and their Queen, while she continued laying eggs.  As time went by, more and more workers were born, who would care for the hundreds of eggs their matriarch laid and raise more and more workers.  Extensive tunnel networks were dug.

At some point the workers found aphids and began harvesting their sugary secretions; tending them on the stems of the plants the aphids infested and carrying them down to their citadel but bringing them back up later. The workers would fight to protect the aphids from those who preyed on their ‘herds’.

Successive generations of ant workers grew bigger, until they reached the optimum size of five milimetres (still four millimetres short of the Queen in her prime). A well-established citadel could in time house as many as 40,000 individuals (although between four and seven thousand would be more common) – they, and previous generations, all daughters of the same mother and the product of one mating only. Their Queen, barring unusual disasters, might live to 15 years of age.

Once the citadel is built, it is vulnerable in the ordinary course of things only to parasites, flood, fire and severe surface disturbance. In Ireland, without bears, wild boar and largely without foraging pigs, severe surface disturbance is unlikely away from human construction or ploughing and digging. Fire might not reach underground but the heat generated or the lack of oxygen might kill anyway; flood, of course, would be the biggest threat. If a citadel should be uncovered or invaded by flood waters, some workers will rush to deal with the problem while others rush to save the young, trying to carry eggs, pupae or cocoons away in their jaws to a safe place. Some others will rush to do whatever they can for their Queen. A black ant defends itself by running away if possible and if not, by biting. But intruders to the citadel are swarmed by biting ants. However most human skin is impervious to the bite and this species does not sting.

Black Ant nest under a stone, disturbed. Ant larvae and pupae visible as the workers rush to take them to safety.

Black Ant nest under a stone, disturbed. Ant larvae and pupae visible as the workers rush to take them to safety.

One day, perhaps three years from the Queen’s maiden flight, she will decide it is time to send her own children into the wider world.  She will lay eggs and have these emerging grubs fed special food, which will produce males for the first time in her citadel, as well as other fertile females besides herself.  Then, one day in July or in August, she will send them out too, to start new colonies.  

Lasius niger, the Black or Garden Ant, is the most common of the 21 species of ant in Ireland. It is the most common also across Europe and a sub-species, L. neoniger, is known in the USA where however, it is not one of the most numerous ant species. Lasius niger is a very active, hardy and adaptable species, living mostly outdoors under rocks and but rarely inside houses (although it may well enter houses repeatedly if it learns of food within, especially sweet food). In cities, its nests are to be found in parks and gardens but also under street paving stones, the workers emerging to forage from tunnels leading to the joints between the stone. When those joints are surrounded by thin lines or small heaps of bright sand in summer, one knows that the workers are clearing the tunnels for the adolescents’ flights. Another indication is an unusual amount of

Black ants, emerging from under their nest. The larger winged ones are fertile and, if they survive, future queens. The winged males are much smaller and all are doomed.

Black ants, emerging from under their nest. The larger winged ones are fertile and, if they survive, future queens. The winged males are much smaller and all are doomed.

seemingly erratic ant activity around a nest, though one would need to be aware of what normal activity looked like, for comparison. The ants may delay, awaiting what they judge to be optimum conditions but someday soon, mid to late afternoon, they will take to the air, to fly, to mate, to die or to live, to start a new population.

End

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