Ant Weddings and the Little Death.
It is flying ant day. It took me a moment to make sense of the little golden lights rising gently from the fault line between the lawn and the garden path, like the slow release of a strange and rather magical energy force. The first I hear of it is on Twitter in the afternoon, from all over the country – and then I glance out of the kitchen window and realise it is happening here, too, in my own front garden.
I go out in my bare feet. The seam between the grass and path has split, revealing a lively, flickering stream about 6in wide, of molten silver, erupting and bubbling over as ants (winged and otherwise) tumble over one another. This is the seam that produces the ants’ fine-crumbed earth-volcanos the green woodpecker visits, uncoiling and lolling a sticky ladder-tongue into them, like a lethal gymnast’s ribbon.
But on this hot afternoon, no predators attend this ant wedding. My youngest daughter (a budding entomologist) watches the phenomenon as the ants travel over our toes, feet and run up our calves: she is unperturbed, gently brushing them off with a grass stalk and then running indoors for her ‘wedding doll’. Shortly, Barbie’s own tiny, permanently arched feet and slightly grubby wedding dress are covered in ants, too, so that she looks like a smiling Miss Havisham, reincarnated as benevolent bridesmaid.
The ants lift and spark from the ground in a slow, steady fountain, passing through shafts of tree-filtered light in a roman candle, where the silver light on their wings on the ground turns to gold in the air.
Incredibly, they rise like this on the same warm, humid days all over the UK; days when the common black ant becomes uncommon, growing wings and taking to the air in an angelic nuptial dance of millions, maximising the chance of finding a mate from a different colony and minimising the risk of being eaten. On their way back down to earth, or shortly after landing, their wings fall off, the new males already dying like little Icarus’s in a timeless ritual of sex and death; le petit mort incarnate, having briefly flown into the sunlight. The long-lived surviving young queens will start new all-female colonies.
Ants are part of the insect building blocks upon which all life is based, their lifecycle and social systems as endlessly fascinating as bees. They aerate and improve soil structure, cycle nutrients, control pests and are an important source of food for birds.
But more than this, for a few days each year, their wedding days make all the papers, are all over the internet, ruin a fair few barbecues and picnics and for some people are utterly absorbing and beautiful.