by Paul Cormacain
WHEN you are in the garden or in the countryside it is usually very easy to see ants - or you might tread on them and not even see them.
Sometimes you might see a single insect, or a column of them, or disturb a nest of them. Last week it was time for a swarm.
The sun was shining, it was nice and warm, and single ants were encountered from time to time.
During a spot of gardening a stone was dislodged, and to and behold a nest of ants was discovered.
Large cocoons formed by the larvae were visible in great numbers but the ants went into a panic routine and started moving the cocoons around so that it was impossible to count them.
There were dozens of them - hundreds of them perhaps. Reading the books, it was possible for such a colony to have thousands of residents. But I shall never know just how many there were.
There is a huge family of insects called the Hymenoptera - a family comprised of about one hundred thousand species.
They can be very varied in size, appearance and habits, but generally they can be sub-divided into two fairly well defined sub-orders.
The descriptive family name derives from the Greek word 'hymen', which means a membrane.
The family has usually two pairs of membranous wings. The two sub-orders are 'Symphyta', insects which have no defined waists, and 'Apocrita', in which there is a very narrow 'waist' between the thorax and the abdomen.
So that makes it all easier for you, you can now break down the hundred thousand species into two groups.
The ants disturbed under a stone were black garden ants. These would be our most common ant, an ant which has the reputation of entering houses in search of sugary food, for it has a sweet tooth.
They live in gardens in town and country, and may be also found in fields, woods and heaths.
As well as nesting under a stone, they will go under plants providing they are well hidden.
They might prefer an old log under which to live, or if you had flag stones for a garden path they might very well take up residence under them.
If you were to lift up such a flag, you would see the walkways they dig out for themselves.
These particular creatures started to panic, for within seconds they were scurrying hither and thither, carrying off cocoons to a safer location.
Such a place would be under a nearby rock, as long as it afforded them protection from their enemies.
Many insects like ants, and many birds like ants, and I do not mean as creatures to be admired except as food.
The black garden ant comes in three shapes and sizes. First, there is the big mammy of them all, the queen ant. Her body length would be about one and a quarter to one and a third centimetres long, and she would have two pairs of wings.
The other female of the species is the worker, a wingless creature who works, obviously, and who would be not much more than half a centimetre long.
Then there is the male, who can fly with his two pairs of wings, and would be in size something between the worker and the queen. He would be maybe three quarters of a centimetre long.
The ant family is a very large family, numbering about one tenth of the Hymenoptera over the whole world.
We would not have an exact figure, as new types of ants are being found from time to time, and some species would die out because of climatic change and human-imposed change.
According to the different books you read, there could be as few as thirty six types of ant in the south of England or there could be as many as fifty.
Whatever the starting figure is, the numbers decrease as you move further north and west. Scotland would have the fewest numbers, but Wales and Ireland would still have fewer types of ant than would be found in the south of England.
The books give the black garden ant as swarming in the autumn. Perhaps the good weather in May and June may have brought on early growth, and this may have something to do with a swarm of ants happening in early August, but I am really clutching at straws.
What happens is that from one nest of ants will issue a swarm of young lady ants, ants who have never gallivanted before.
They come out to view the scenery, to admire the talent, as young ladies have been known to do in the past, and may well continue to do in the future.
By some magical but unknown means, a nearby nest of ants will send forth its finest males to have some friendly conversations with the young ladies.
So you will have a swarm of young ladies and a swarm of young gents in the air not too far apart.
Of course, the only thing to do in the circumstances is for the ladies and gents to get together, so they soon form one large swarm. You may well see such a swarm anywhere about here in the near future.
Well, what happens but a rate of handy marriages are performed, and, as happens, many ladies will become pregnant. But what else happens - all of the ladies become widows because the males all die off.
The pregnant ant then finds a suitable site, proceeds to bite off her wings, or break off her wings.
Some think it is a poor widow's reaction, but it is more practical than that.
She does not need her wings any more, nor does she need a husband any more.
She enters the site she has chosen, and in the fullness of time she lays her eggs.
The first batch of young are fed on her saliva, thereafter the young go out to forage, return and feed the next brood.
The queen then retires and goes into the business of breeding full time, while her children feed the other children.
The life of an ant all sounds very pre-destined. But you could say that the life of all creatures is pre-destined.
Saturday 7th August
Summer Fair at Dundrum Castle, 12:00, details available from Environment folk on 028 9054 3037
Saturday 7th and Sunday 8th August
Oxford Island Wildlife 2004. A huge range of events over the two days, contact the Island for more, on 028 3832 2205
Sunday 15th August
Butterfly Outing to Rostrevor Park, with Trevor Boyd, 11:00. Why not phone him for details, 028 9185 2276 ?
Monday 16th to Friday 20th August
Children's Wildlife Hour at 14:30, more from Oxford Island on 02838322205
Saturday 28th August
Butterfly Outing from Cnocagh Monument, east Antrim at 10:30 with Adrian Kernohan, who will tell you more on 028 9335 5565
Bird Fayre at Tannaghmor Gardens, further information from. Oxford Island on 028 3832 2205