Queens are among the two ant castes capable of flight. As virgins, most queen ants have wings which allow them to fly out of their nests and participate in a nuptial flight where they swarm and mate with other reproductives.
In this article we’ll discuss how and why queen ants fly. We’ll also discuss the different types of queen ants to find out if all of them are capable of flight.
How Are Queen Ants Capable Of Flight?
In most species, queen ants emerge from the pupal stage as fully winged adults. These queens are called alates, winged reproductive ants which at certain times of the year participate in mating flights.
The wings of these alates are attached to the thorax where flight muscles contract and control wing movement, moving them up and down to allow for flight.
Can All Queen Ants Fly?
Not all queens are capable of flight. In alates, the ability to fly is reserved only for virgin queens. After mating, these queens shed their wings because they become useless and rather burdensome underground where queens burrow and stay for the rest of their lives to lay eggs.
Some queens also convert and use their wing muscles as food for the first generation of workers. So even if they did keep their wings, they’ve already lost their ability to fly anyway.
There are also queen ants which mature with short non-functional wings or emerge from the pupal stage with no wings at all.
Queens that emerge with no wings are called ergatoid queens. These queens are characterized by the lack of wing muscles and reduced worker-like thoraxes. They’re found in at least 49 ant genera including Leptogenys and Ocymrmex ants.
On the other hand, queens that emerge with short non-functional wings are brachypterous queens. The wings of these queens are often broken within hours of emergence, but wing stubs and unused flight sclerites remain, giving the impression that they’re capable of flying.
These flightless queens are typically found in polygynous ant species wherein queens simply mate near or within their nests. With these species, mating flights are bypassed due to the costs of dispersal, and therefore, queens don’t need to grow wings to reproduce.
Why Do Some Queens Fly?
Unlike polygynous ant species, monogynous ants generally adapt the nuptial flight as their reproductive strategy. As such, their queens need to grow wings and fly out to swarm and mate with other reproductive ants.
The ability to fly allows them to disperse, a key characteristic of mating flights. Through dispersal, these queens are able to locate and colonize new areas and resources. It also allows them to nest away from their maternal nests and prevent potential competition and conflict.
Lastly, dispersal also allows these queens to avoid inbreeding which research has shown to be detrimental to their overall fitness. After inbreeding for a number of generations, colonies begin to show signs of inbreeding depression as characterized by increased brood mortality and shortened queen lifespan.
So beyond swarming and mating, queen ants fly to increase their chances of survival. The ability to fly allows them to expand to suitable territories where they can establish and grow new colonies.
How Do Queen Ants Grow Wings?
Queen ants don’t grow wings as in the sense that wings suddenly erupt out of their thoraxes when it’s time to mate. Instead, they’re born with them and they emerge out the pupal stage as winged reproductive ants, that is given that the species produces winged alates. Otherwise, they may not be born with wings at all.
Can Ants Fly?
Some ants can fly. As we’ve already determined, the queens of many ant species are born with wings and are capable of flying. Aside from these queens, ants also produce winged reproductive males which also fly and participate in the nuptial flight. Worker ants are the only ants which are constantly flightless.
Summary: Can Queen Ants Fly?
Most queen ants are born with wings and specialized flight muscles which allow them to fly and participate in the nuptial flight. There are some queens however, particularly those from polygynous species, that are born wingless or with short non-functional wings. These queens are called brachypterous and ergatoid queens, respectively.