Like smoke from shafts of the abyss, like drizzling rain flipped into reverse gravity, the spiralling cones of flying ants pour tentatively skywards. Each individual ant appears at first to be frail and bewildered but quickly becomes absorbed into the wider context – a delirious, hypnotic choreography of love and death. Today is the day the queen ants are emerging from the nest to begin their nuptial flight.
Most ants in a colony are infertile females (workers). The queen is the only fertile female and all the ants are her offspring. Every year, some of her eggs produce winged ants (alates). The male alates (drones) and female alates (queens) all leave the nest at the same time and the queens release pheromones designed to attract a partner. Smaller and less conspicuous, the drones fly up alongside and mount the queens in the air, but the actual mating process often takes place on the ground.
The sole function of the drone is to mate with a queen in nuptial flight. He enjoys the briefest moment of passion before his genitalia gruesomely explodes in the female (he quickly dies after mating). The queens lose their wings and attempt to start a new ant colony.
The phenomenon occurs when the time of year (usually July) and weather conditions such as temperature, humidity and wind speed are just right. Flocks of birds can often be seen gorging on the airborne feast.