Cochise County Mating Orgy: Harvester Ant (Pheidole Tepicana) Queens and Consorts Go For It

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The big headed harvester ants of Big Colony (as we call it) were getting it on, all right. Hundreds of winged queens (deep red color) and equally winged male consorts (orange color) emerged from the colony’s “old hole” to get their bearings and engage in a bit of preflight sex before they all took to the air.

At least, those are my conclusions. At first, the orange colored ants had me wondering. Could it be that they needed exposure to surface air to deepen their tint? But no. Once a bit of online research made it clear that both males and females emerge from underground together, it hit me: Bet those orange guys are, uh…guys! So I started studying the video and photos for clues. Were the orange ants acting “male-like”?

Oh, you betcha! I’ve watched the video clip (embedded farther down this page) a fair number of times and the evidence is in. As the swarm is fumbling around on the ground–some of the winged wonders came topside, then turned right around and retreated back down the hole for a while–some of the orange colored ants show mounting behavior. The ant getting mounted was always of the deeper red color. Ergo, male on female behavior. The mounts only lasted for a second or two each, but perhaps it doesn’t take long for ants to get the fertilizing job done. Either that, or the on-the-ground mounting is just a warm-up for the real event that takes place in the air as every colony in the area sends its breeders into action on the same exact day, just once per year.

Center:  An orange winged male consort mounts an equally winged queen big headed harvester ant (Pheidole tepicana) near the colony entrance as the breeding swarm prepares to take flight.

Center: An orange winged male consort mounts an equally winged queen big headed harvester ant (Pheidole tepicana) near the colony entrance as the breeding swarm prepares to take flight.

It takes these ants five years or so to grow a colony to maturity, at least to the point that a breeding swarm is produced. That means Big Colony is likely older than we’d realized, somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 individuals making up the total. With any sort of luck, the colony should be able to keep producing and thriving for another ten years or more, eventually withering to nothing after the Queen Mother (of this colony) dies. With no more eggs being laid to generate new workers…ah, but that’s a good while off, most likely.

Scientists irritate me, especially the types who think the way to study an ant is to kill one and stick a pin through it. There are plenty of pin-stuck corpses shown on the Internet; Wikipedia even uses an image of one as its photo representative of the harvester ant. To which I say, gag, barf, you gotta be kidding me. Studying a dead insect is like studying a corpse, which of course all med students due (never mind that they call them cadavers), but I’m really not into necrophilia. If you want to study a living creature, study it while it’s living.

And there’s a whole lot of living going on in this video.
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The video can be watched in different ways, either marveling at the overall swarming activity or zeroing in on an individual harvester ant queen or male consort to see what each one is doing. The latter technique reveals some mighty interesting behavior ranging from a randy male doing his thing to a queen sitting almost perfectly erect, grooming herself fastidiously. Gotta look good for your nuptial flight, right? Especially when you get to have fun with several males and then–if you survive the harsh desert conditions long enough, which only one in one hundred of you will manage–you get to dig a hole in the ground and stay there for the rest of your life, popping out egg-babies nonstop.

Now, that might not be the sort of life I’d choose for myself, but it beats being chloroformed and stuck through with a steel pin. I think.

Winged big headed harvester ant queens (red) and their  winged male consorts (orange) swarm out of Big Colony for their one day of partying under the sun.

Winged big headed harvester ant queens (red) and their winged male consorts (orange) swarm out of Big Colony for their one day of partying under the sun.

3 thoughts on “Cochise County Mating Orgy: Harvester Ant (Pheidole Tepicana) Queens and Consorts Go For It

  1. This is fascinating, but still glad I missed being in on it. I have been around some mating flights and they always get into my hair and on me. I really hate bugs in my hair.

  2. I was actually comforted by this post and video, Ghost. Occasionally, I see winged ants on my property and I pray they’re not termites. My house is made of block, so I’d like to think I’m termite free. Plus, when I bought my house in 1995, the termite inspection passed with flying (ha ha) colors.

    I love your nature posts. I learn a lot.

  3. Becky: I understand the hair concern. It didn’t worry me this year as I had my hair super short after shaving my head a few weeks ago. Last year when I got nailed, my hair was a lot longer.
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    Sha: Glad to hear you love the nature posts. I learn a lot from them, too–or, more specifically, from the necessary research prior to writing and publishing them. It was comforting to Pam & me, too, to read that termites are food to harvester ants. 🙂

    I would think you’re correct, that living in a non-wooden house would tend to keep you termite free.

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