Flying Ant Day: The Myth of the Myth

Here’s how to make yourself seem clever by pretending that others are fools. First, make up a belief which is provably wrong. Next, ascribe this belief to others by informing everyone that it is a belief commonly held by laypeople. Finally, explain how people are wrong to hold this belief. If successful this method will ensure that most people seem like idiots badly in need of the sort of enlightened knowledge you hold.

flying_ants
Flying Ant Day: just another excuse for a party

Yesterday, while browsing for information about swarms, I came across something I had never previously heard of: Flying Ant Day. The opening paragraph to The Guardian article on this topic refers confidently to ‘what’s known as Flying Ant Day’ as having fallen ‘this year’ on Sunday 2 August. I’ve been around for a few years, during which time I’ve come across a number of strange ‘days’—Pi Day and Valentine’s Day immediately spring to mind—but I’ve never encountered Flying Ant Day. Despite a familiarity with the phenomenon of flying ants, no relative, no friend, no stranger has ever uttered those words in my presence. Have I lived in a bubble for the past forty years, somehow oblivious to something known and spoken about by most people? So I did some research for ten minutes to find some answers.

An article in the science section of The Independent from last year similarly begins with some confidence, informing the reader that the thousands of ants witnessed the previous day ‘was because we are in the throngs of what some call “Flying Ant Day”’. The author gets bolder: ‘most people have grown to accept that there is one day every summer that will see ants inevitably turn up in their thousands and then quickly disappear again’; and then bolder still: ‘“Flying Ant Day” is the layman’s term for [this] time’. So having stated that the majority of readers hold this belief, the article then shows them all to be wrong to do so. In answer to the question ‘When is “Flying Ant Day”?’ the author for the first time mentions (and notice the disappearance of capitals) ‘a “flying ant day”’. And then at last we are told that ‘Despite the notion that the appearance of flying ants is for just one day a year, scientists have proved that this is in fact a myth’. Yes, there may be several days of the year on which ants fly. Of course the real myth is that anybody believed in this notion of the grand Flying Ant Day in the first place rather than in the fact that every now and then there is a day on which conditions are just right for several colonies of ants to go mating.

The Guardian article similarly tells us that ‘Flying Ant Day is actually a bit of a misnomer’ and ‘a myth’. But no doubt if a story is run annually claiming that people do in fact believe in Flying Ant Day (and, so far as I can tell, science journalists have been running this Flying Ant Day myth since 2012), then eventually we will believe not so much in Flying Ant Day itself but in the notion that most other people believe in Flying Ant Day (even though they don’t). We can then happily conclude that most other people are idiots who need a little scientific enlightenment (even though they don’t). And we can marvel at the myth-busting power of science and journalists (even though it was the scientists and journalists, or maybe even greetings card manufacturers who think Flying Ant Day is an untapped market, who invented the myth in the first place).

I did learn something fascinating from these articles which thankfully (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective) does not seem to be a myth. When the male ant mates with the queen his purpose in life is over and he quickly dies. Cause of death: his genitals explode inside the queen.

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