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It happens late in any summer during which the Arizona monsoon is at all generous with rain. They rise.

The past week or so has been just that, generous, with a significant portion of the summer’s rains falling in recent days. Every morning, out for the walk, I’ve been treated to cool, moist air, amazing cloudscapes and sunrises, and suburban wildlife brought out and active by the abundance of that scarcest of desert resources – rain. This morning, after an unusual day and night of long and steady rains, there was something more than the war between hawks and mockingbirds going on in the air. I set out for the morning walk in a world dripping wet, cool and muggy, and swarming with huge, winged ants. They were literally everywhere, some flying aimlessly in wide spirals up and through the moist air, others flying with clear purpose toward some unseen destination. I looked up to follow their trajectories, and saw thousands more in the air, with brooding thunderheads as a backdrop. The sun was already up, and rays of pale light lanced through the clouds to the east, lighting the bellies of the clouds overhead. Against a sky of black and gray, white and fire, the harvester ants swarmed. There were so many winging through the calm morning that breathing through the mouth was not recommended, as at least one runner I saw learned the hard way.

The ants must have emerged just before I started walking. The gyres of ants I expected to see had not yet pulled together. Here and there a whirling sphere of winged ants drifted over the curb, but it was a good twenty minutes before I saw the expected towering columns of airborne ants spinning like an animation of whirling molecules gone mad. When they finally pulled together, it seemed suddenly the air was cleared of ants. No more aimless wanderers filling the air at random. The main event was under way, the reason they were flying in the first place. The time had come for the males and females of the species to seek each out and mate, which they do in spinning orgies of ants that rise in narrow columns fifteen and twenty feet tall. The bottoms of the gyres are usually five or six feet off the ground and the columns change shape as the ants whirl and dance on wings in search of just the right partner. The ground underneath each gyre is soon littered with pairs of ants that have found what they sought.

Birds, bats, and dragonflies attend the gyres. The winged ants are apparently stingless, and good eating. They take a huge risk, forming these towering gyres whirling in the still air. Some pay the ultimate price for taking this chance, and are recycled into other creatures that share this desert suburb. But not all will be eaten, and new colonies of harvester ants will be founded by these frantic, airborne pairings. Some of the colonies will escape the ire of gardeners, tired of their plants stripped by ants in need of food for their fungus gardens, cultivated deep underground. And next summer, monsoon willing, the gyres will rise high into the muggy air on a morning that smells of yesterday’s rain.

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Posted August 23, 2012 by underdesertstars in Nature

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