As the summer rolls on in Britain, people enjoying the outdoors may be in for an unpleasant surprise. When the conditions are just right, thousands of black ants will erupt out of lawns, gardens, and cracks in the pavement to take flight in a festival of mating. The seemingly random outbreaks, scientists believe, are annual quests to found new ant colonies.

To find out more about exactly what those perfect conditions for flight are, the Society of Biology in the United Kingdom has teamed up with Adam Hart, an ecologist and insect expert at the University of Gloucestershire, to conduct a huge citizen science experiment. The researchers put out a call in June for the public to report sightings of flying ant outbreaks, as well as the weather conditions at the site, and already have a phenomenal response.

"I was surprised to get quite so many responses from the...

Flying ant outbreaks occur only in the summer as males and potential new queens, called gynes, look to mate. Once the males have done their duty, they die soon after, but the females drop their wings and establish colonies as new queens. Fertilized only this once, the females will go on to produce eggs throughout their 10- to 15-year lifespan, producing between 5,000 and 15,000 workers for the colony.

This is the first year for the survey, which the Society of Biology hopes will become an annual event, capable of tracking the effect of weather patterns on the emergence of the ants. Since they only have one chance to fly and mate, the ants are vulnerable to wind, rain, and cold temperatures. Synchronizing flights between colonies would help increase the possibility for aspiring queens to find mates, but whether ants emerge at the same time across geographic regions is largely unknown. To get the answer, researchers need the public’s help. "These sorts of large scale data can only be collected if you have a large number of observers, and this means that a ‘citizen science’ approach is ideal method," Hart said.

Studying the flying ants can give insights into the population dynamics of the insects, which are important for soil fertility, serve as a food source for swifts and gulls, and even act as pest control, consuming crop-eating aphids. The data is pouring in, and although the analysis won't be completed until October, Hart is already excited by the implications.

"It's really too early to tell but even a casual glance at the data so far shows that flying ant emergence is a spatially and temporally complex event," he said. "The data so far suggest that there certainly isn't a single ‘flying ant day,’ even within the same small town."

The flying ant survey is also an experiment in science outreach, citizen science, and the use of social media. As well as using traditional methods like direct emailing of Society members and a press release, the Society of Biology created a Twitter hash tag, #flyingantsurvey, and encouraged people to submit pictures, by allowing photos tagged “flyingantsurvey” on Flickr to be uploaded to a Flickr group. As the survey progresses, the Society are also maintaining a map of sightings across the country.

"As well as the ‘science,’ we will also be looking at the ‘citizens,’ hoping to find out more about how and why people fill in surveys, what mistakes they make, and how to use social networking and the media to increase take up," said Hart.

Watch a video of a swarm of flying ants, courtesy of Rebecca Nesbit at the Society of Biology.

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