Many ants mate in nuptial flights, taking to the air to seek out a mate among swarms of their kind. After walking through one such swarm on his way to class, my labmate Collin told me, “Help, I’m covered in queens. Would you like any?”
These flights are often synchronized by seasonal and environmental cues to insure everybody makes it to the party at the right time. Winged future queens and their short-lived male counterparts then emerge from underground tunnels and prepare to take to the skies. As the alates gather, the workers mill around protectively, making sure everyone stays safe and nobody leaves until the time is just right. Sometimes workers drag out reluctant alates–the free ride is apparently over and it’s time to kick the kids out of the house.
Most of these alates (and all of the males) won’t make it. But some of the female alates will eventually drop their wings and become the mothers of a new generation of workers and alates.