Sunday, August 12, 2012

Love flies

Last Thursday, August 9th, the day of Saint Amour, the ants of La Chaise had sex. It is an expression I dislike intensely. It puts love-making, or pro-creation, on the same level as the consumption of an ice-cream cone. In the case of these ants, lasius niger most likely, for one gender the act is death-dealing, for the other a sentence to a life-time of hard work. The males die, the queen females burrow nests and pro-create until the end of their life-time which can be as much as 15 years. Both lose the wings that so briefly take them into the warm air of a summer evening.

In French it is called 'la nuit des folles amours des fourmis' . Mating is such a boring, anglo-saxon word. I doubt whether 'having sex' can be translated into French, anymore than the idea of 'teetotal'. The ants' mad night of love lasts 24 hours, maximum 48, and hurts no human.

Unfortunately most urban human holiday makers, even French ones, are not too keen on flying ants, or any other insect, not too indulgent about their (invisible) sexual activity. In previous years we have noticed the ant phenomenon whilst having supper on our terrace. A few thousand or so ants get burnt by the supper table candles, then take their courtship dance elsewhere. This year, the ants decided that their Prom would be held on the field side corner of the Farmhouse pool where it is hit by the last of the evening light. The pool was already leaking salt water into the fields. We noticed nothing at the main house until there was a frantic call from the Farmhouse. 'You must do something'.

It was a most impressive sight, unless you normally live in the Versailles suburbs. Then it is alarming. The ants covered the tiled rim of the pool to about a metre either side, never mind those that were drowning in the water. Obviously one cannot count individual ants but I would guess they were in their many thousands, hundreds of thousands. By this time their mating ritual had been accomplished and most were wingless. With a brief prayer of excuses to the God of Ants, I took a bucket of pool water, a mop and swept them all into the grass. Then I used the pool skimmer to fish the rest from the water. I hope some of the queens survived. At least the holiday makers were happy, but only because they thought I had 'done something' though nothing actually useful. And the flies were watching us.

For a long time now I have noticed that there seems to be some relationship between ants at La Chaise and certain of the thistle plants in our fields. The ants make a nest under the roots of the thistles, so lifting the plant somewhat above ground level. As I swipe the flower head off the thistles with my stick, I wonder a little about this seemingly weird relationship.

Alright, I know the thistle is the national flower of Scotland but I do not know why. JP's family has adopted the thistle as the family insignia. Now I read that aphids are apparently particularly partial to thistles and ants are very fond of the sugars produced by these same. So the ants nurture both the plants and the insect. It means that ants are farmers really – like us, only smaller, more numerous, more serious.

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