Ants with wings can be a pretty common sight at certain times of the year because at least some members of almost all ant species can develop wings and fly.
Winged ants are swarming ants seeking to breed and reproduce. Flying ants may be male (the drone) or female (the queen). Both are reproductive ants that are seeking to mate and breed the next generation of ants for the survival of their colony.
Swarms of Flying Ants
During early to mid-spring, "swarms" of flying ants numbering into the thousands can be seen leaving their colonies and going on mating or "nuptial" flights. A colony sends out a large number of swarmers because only a very small percentage actually make it through mating to start a new generation. The majority will be eaten by predators, such as birds or dragonflies, or they will die from lack of food or water.
Almost all ant species do swarm, and spring and fall are common seasons for the mating flights. However, there also are some species that mate in summer or other times of the year.
Winged ants of a specific species typically emerge around the same time because temperature and other weather, such as recent rains, trigger swarming and mating.
Ants with Wings
Only reproductive ants have wings, and they will are winged and able to fly only during the breeding season. Ant species that do not swarm do not have winged members, and they increase their populations through budding. Which, basically means, a queen and trailing reproductive males leave the nest and walk to another site to form a new colony.
It is important to note that the foraging worker ants of any species that you see trailing on the sidewalk or in your kitchen will never have wings. So if you do see winged ants in or around your home, you can almost bet that they are seeking to create a new colony.
Once the male and female mate, the female "queen" will remove her wings to start a new nest. The male drone, whose only purpose in life is to mate, will live a few months at most, then die after mating. Thus, for that short period of winged life after mating, these ants are, for the most part, relatively harmless when found outdoors, and are simply part of the natural life cycle of ants.
Importance of Identification
If you see swarming around your home, it is a good idea to identify the ant species right away because carpenter ants and termites (which look like winged ants) can cause significant damage to homes and other buildings. The presence of winged ants indicates they are attempting to extend their populations, and if it is a harmful species, it can potentially cause damage or bring on even more damage.
Effective Ant Control
One positive aspect of swarming is that it can help you locate an ant nest to enable more effective control and elimination. The most effective methods of control for ants include baiting along trails where ants have been seen and direct nest application with a properly labeled insecticide.
In general, leave swarming ants alone. Control of flying ants is necessary only if outdoor ants are causing a problem or if flying ants are found inside the home. Although it is possible that an ant (or two) is indoors because it lost its way during mating season. If you see indoor trails, then baits are your most effective option for ant control. Insecticidal spraying of trailing ants is never recommended, as this kills only the worker ants that are contacted, it does not eliminate the breeding queen or colony.