Nuptial flight of Insects | Ethology

Nuptial flight

Nuptial flight is a type of animal behavior seen in insects which is also an important phase in the reproduction of most social insects such as ants, termites, and certain species of bees. During nuptial flight, the virgin queens mate with males and then land to start a new colony and in the case of winged insects such as honey bees, continue the succession of an existing hived colony. The winged version of ants and termites which takes part in nuptial flight are known as alates.

Nuptial flight of insects consists of three main phases:

1. Before flight

2. During flight

3. After flight

Winged males of Weaver ants ready for nuptial flight.
Pic 1: Winged males of Weaver ants ready for nuptial flight.
Winged queen ready for  nuptial flight
Pic 2: Winged queen

Before Nuptial flight

An insect colony seasonally produces winged virgin queens and males, called alates. The unfertilized eggs develop into males and fertilized eggs develops either into wingless sterile workers or develops into virgin queens.
The young queens and males stay in their parent colony until conditions are right for the nuptial flight. The nuptial flight requires clear weather such as no rain, no wind and clear sky. Different colonies of the same insect species often use environmental cues to synchronize the release of males and queens so that they can mate with individuals from other nests, thus reducing inbreeding.

During flight

During flight the queens then release pheromones to attract males. Mating between the queen and males takes place during flight.
A queen usually mates with several males and stores the sperm in a special organ, known as a spermatheca which is found in the queen’s abdomen. The sperms which is stored can be as long as 20 years which is used by the queen to fertilize millions of eggs.

After Nuptial flight

After the flight, the male insects generally dies as during mating the male literally explodes his internal genitalia into the genital chamber of the queen. The queen on the other hand finds an appropriate place and lands. In case of insects such as ants and all termites, remove their wings. The queen then dugs underground and forms the colony’s first chamber and lays eggs. The eggs hatches and develop into worker ants.The queen usually nurses the first brood alone. After the first workers appear, the queen’s role in the colony is to lay eggs.

Ant queen after removal of wings and digging a new colony
Pic 3: Ant queen after removal of wings and digging a new colony

The eggs in due course of time will give rise to drones (unfertilized eggs) , workers and queens (fertilized eggs).

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