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Of course, for the bulk of the alates, romance proves elusive. They are eaten by birds and other predators
The males vie with each other for access to the virgin queens, and they can be extremely determined. The Internet recently was abuzz over a video that photographer and ant expert Alex Wild posted on his blog, and succinctly headlined: "Male ants don't particularly care if their mate is dead and being eaten by a spider." As Wild noted--and who could argue--"I can't imagine anything more unpleasant than being sucked dry by a crab spider latched to my skull. Other than the same, but simultaneously being assaulted by
The swarms sometimes form enormous masses. In 2009, flying ants were so numerous that they interrupted a Champions Trophy cricket match in South Africa between Australia and New Zealand.
The alates from multiple colonies often all emerge at once, which helps reduce inbreeding because males and females can find mates outside their own nest. This probably happens not because the ants are communicating but because they all respond to the same environmental stimuli.
What ant sex reminds us is that spring can be kind of scary, or at least sobering, particularly for non-humans. Millions of ants, millions of robin eggs, millions of flower seeds, most destined to die before they are even fully grown, and almost all unlikely to reproduce. All that rampant profligacy, all that heedless destruction. In "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek," Annie Dillard writes, "I can like it and call it birth and regeneration, or I can play the devil's advocate and call it rank fecundity--and say that it's hell that's a'poppin'."
I don't know if it is hell, exactly, but
Marlene Zuk is a professor of ecology, evolution, and behavior at the University of Minnesota. Her latest book is "Sex on Six Legs: Lessons on Life, Love and Language From the Insect World." She wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.