Do Ants Have Wings?

Unraveling the mystery of flying ants

Table of Contents

Ants are a type of common insect found all around the world except in Antarctica, Iceland, Greenland, and some island countries. Being social insects, most ant species live in structured colonies that may be found underground, in mounds at the ground-level, or in trees. A single ant colony may contain hundreds of thousands of ants. Although most ants do not have wings, did you know that a few ants do? What is the difference between the ants with wings and the ants without wings? Let’s explore these questions and learn more about ants with wings!

Ants in a colony

Each ant in an ant colony has a particular role in the community. Usually, the colony is headed by a single queen or two, but some colonies can have up to thousands of queens. The queen is responsible for laying thousands of eggs. The male ants (or drones) are only assigned the role of mating with the queen. Worker ants, the most commonly spotted of all the members, are females that do not mate like the queen ant. Instead, they search for food, care for the queen’s offspring, work on the nest, and protect the community. Worker ants are famous for being able to carry fifty times the weight of their own body.

AntMilkAphid
A worker ant without wings. Credit: Wikimedia/Guido Gerding

Out of these members in an ant colony, which ants have wings? In ants, the presence of wings is a sign of fertility or the ability to mate. Only the queen ants and the male drones have wings! Using their wings, queen ants and male drones are able to fly. Flying ants are also called alates, swarmers, or reproductives. Winged ants may also be spotted by their bent antennae and a narrow waist between the abdomen and thorax. Winged ants have longer forewings and shorter hindwings. This difference in the size of the wings helps distinguish between winged ants and winged termites (where the wings are equal in length).

Why do ants need wings

Although worker ants do not need wings to perform their duties, queen ants and male drones require wings to perform their roles. An ant colony can expand only to a certain extent, before the queen ant must leave to establish a new ant colony. During the summer season, queen ants and male drones of the same species use their wings to take flight. Because these ants appear in the same place at the same time in such large numbers, the occurrence is often known as flying ant day. However, it should be called flying ant season, as this swarming event usually occurs over multiple days in hot and humid weather.

Lasius._nuptial_flight
Male and female ants preparing for their nuptial flight. Credit: Wkimedia/Beatriz Moisset

Why do flying ants swarm simultaneously? One reason is that it gives them protection from predators, as there is safety in numbers. The second reason to gather in large numbers is to increase the chance of reproduction. Thus, the queen ants’ mate with male drones from different colonies to establish new colonies of their own. The large, winged queen ant and the smaller winged male drone may be spotted flying as they are attached to each other. This is called the nupital flight. After mating, queen ants chew off their wings and look for a place to establish a new colony. The male drones survive only for another day or two after the nuptial flight.

A queen ant establishing a new colony after chewing off its wings. Credit: Wikimedia

Glossary

Colony: an organized or structured community of ants


Queen
: the head of an ant colony; a female ant that has wings and the ability to mate


Drone
: the male ant, having the role of mating with the queen


Worker Ant
: the ants which cannot mate, but perform other roles


Alates
: ants with wings; also called swarmers or reproductives


Abdomen
: the posterior-most body segment


Thorax
: the body part between the head and the abdomen


Forewings
: the wings at the front of insects


Hindwings
: the wings at the back of insects


Flying Ant Day
: a misnomer for the time when ants may be seen in swarms


Nuptial Flight
: the flight of a male drone and a queen ant mating

Flesch Kincaid Grade Level: 7.2


Flesch Kincaid Reading Ease: 71.8

  1. “Ants, Facts and Information.” Animals, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/invertebrates/facts/ants?loggedin=true&rnd=1681054712827
  2. Britton, Author(s) David. “Ants: Family Formicidae.” The Australian Museum, https://australian.museum/learn/animals/insects/ants-family-formicidae/
  3. “Flying Ant Day: When Winged Ants Take Their Nuptial Flight.” Natural History Museum, https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/when-why-winged-ants-swarm-nuptial-flight.html
  4. Harrison, Georgia. “Facts about Flying Ants!: Nat Geo Kids.” National Geographic Kids, 20 Dec. 2022, https://www.natgeokids.com/uk/discover/animals/insects/flying-ants/
  5. Orkin. “Ants with Wings: How to Get Rid of Flying Ants.” Orkin, Orkin, 31 Oct. 2022, https://www.orkin.com/pests/ants/winged-ants

Contributors

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