Swarms of tiny flying insects descended on Philadelphia Monday night, clustering in barely visible clouds that caught many by surprise. Bug clusters were reported all over the city, from South Philly to Center City to Fishtown to the Northeast.
The situation during prime evening hours, around 6 to 9 p.m., was so bad that people — and the Philadelphia Police — were making jokes about “end times” and “our new insect overlords.”
So what’s the deal? Well, it’s not the apocalypse.
The winged buggers that showed up last night were likely flying ants, per Michelle Niedermeier, environmental health program coordinator at Penn State’s Pennsylvania Integrated Pest Management Program, which is based in Philly.
During their mating season, these critters emerge from their larval state in synchrony to make it easier to find mates, meaning thousands of of males and queens are released into the air at the same time for what’s known as the “nuptial flight,” said Dr. John Cambridge, the entomologist who runs the Philadelphia Insectarium and Butterfly Pavilion in Holmesburg.
It turns out there’s even a name for this phenomenon happening at this time of year — “Labor Day ants.” It’s been documented in areas around North America, and last night’s swarm reached as far north as Connecticut.
But if it’s a regular thing, why are we noticing it in Philly more this year (and especially Monday night)?
Basically, because nature doesn’t follow a regular marching pattern. “All organisms go through continuous boom-bust population cycles,” Cambridge explained. “It would be much more unusual and unnatural to always see the same number of a particular creature each year.”
We tend to notice these things more with creatures that have a short lifespan, he said, because we get to experience so many different generations going by. Niedermeier added that a variety of factors can contribute to unusually large swarms, including temperature, humidity and rain. And though Philly has been spared the brunt of it, the weather has been pretty crazy lately.
So what can we do if the flying ants come for us? Pretty much nothing (no flamethrowers, please, per the Philly Health Department).
However, Cambridge offers this tip: Raise your hand.
“If you do find yourself in a swarm of midges or gnats,” he said, “a trick is to raise your hand above your head because the insects will often orient towards the highest point on your body — better your fist than your face!”