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Flight Lines: From the smallest of insects come great things (with videos)

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Just last week my wife and I left town on a short vacation. When I tell people we went to Arizona they think I'm crazy but that's a topic for another day.

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One morning we found ourselves on a friend's patio gazing up at the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson. It had rained heavily the night before and the air was thick with the complex earthy scents of the Sonoran Desert. Broad-billed hummingbirds were zipping around, lesser goldfinches sang steadily, and cactus wrens rattled from somewhere in the nearby wash. Despite all of this, what captured our collective attentions that morning were not the hooded orioles nesting in a nearby palm tree or the blossoming cacti. No, it was ants.

The number of ants estimated to be living at the moment is somewhere north of one quadrillion, making it the most numerous multi-celled organism on earth. Amazingly these small insects diligently scurrying about their daily tasks go mostly ignored by us. When we do discern them, it's usually a negative encounter. Once our picnic is disrupted, or they show up on our kitchen counters, or we stumble onto a nest of fire ants, yeah, we notice.

That particular morning was enchanting. No less than three different columns of winged ants were whirling and twisting from ground level up to about 15 feet in the air. Rising and falling and pulsing, none of us remembered ever seeing anything like it (a short video can be found at westfargopioneer.com/outdoors). Some cursory research turned up the answer: we were seeing nuptial flights.

Apparently under the right weather conditions (usually following a rain), a mature colony will produce a number of winged individuals consisting of virgin queens and males. At the correct moment, young ants emerge and take to the air in a frenzied tornado wherein the queens mate with several males before striking out in an attempt to establish their own colonies. Like salmon, the males will die after mating.

Within about three hours the entire spectacle was over, leaving little indication anything had happened except for a few dead ant bodies scattered around, presumably males. The ant show was far from over however.

Tending to the dead were much smaller ants, maybe 1/10th the size. For the lesser species it must have been like great big food packages had parachuted from above. Methodically, the tiny cousins were cutting the larger dead ants apart and carrying the pieces to their nest. It's an ant-eat-ant world I guess.

While this was going on yet another ant caught my attention. By now we've heard of the tremendous strength enjoyed by ants, being able to carry many multiples of their own weight. This one, though, was carrying a bird feather (another video, same link). I couldn't recall ever seeing this but didn't think much of it. That is, until it was repeated about six times around the perimeter of the property. There is something going on here, I thought, Internet search time.

Roberta Gibson is an entomologist who studied carpenter ants at Cornell University. Her blog, Wild About Ants, is a fun and rich source of ant info. In one post she addresses ants' need for water and various means taken by different species to acquire it. It seems at least some ants line their nests with feathers so as to collect morning dew. She writes, "I have seen Forelius ants carrying feathers here in Arizona." Aha! It is highly likely I was watching this very genus of ant.

There were more ant antics that day as the bunch of large dead beetles which had deposited themselves near our friend's back door had somehow disappeared. I suspect ants.

There are something like 12,000 to 14,000 species of ants found on earth described thus far, with thousands more awaiting scientific study. The importance of these insects is nearly immeasurable. Renowned Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson wrote, "...they've had a great impact on habitats almost all over the land surface of the world for more than 50-million years."

It is sometimes difficult to imagine how an organism tiny enough to escape our notice most days can become such a dominant force in nature. Of course it's numbers. There are simply lots and lots of them endlessly, tirelessly performing miraculous feats every single day in ways we don't always appreciate. If we pay just a little attention, though, we might just be treated to a flying ant storm or perhaps even one toting a feather.

Corliss is a West Fargo resident, avid birder, and ND Game and Fish volunteer instructor. He serves as a corporate pilot for Forum Communications. kcorliss@forumcomm.com.

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