Monthly Archives: October 2011

Flying Ant Day 2011

Yesterday morning the front yard bloomed with tiny tinkerbells, shimmering in the sun.  First a few, then dozens, probably hundreds at a time, angling up and across the yard, swept along by a light breeze.  What could it be?  I first grabbed the binoculars by my side, to see if super-vision would help identify them, but they moved too fast. Walking outside and letting them fly toward and over me didn’t improve matters: they were so small, all I could be sure of was that they had four long slender Tinkerbell-ish wings, two on each side. But who were these wings carrying?

These are larger, leafcutter ants, photographed in Arizona by Alex Wild; click to visit a page on his site with lots of great photos of Flying Ant Day in Tucson

I tried reaching out, hoping to sweep one into my hand on its way by, but each one that came close flitted away, and their bodies were just too small to get a glimpse of.  Finally one bumped and landed on my shirt, and I was able to gently pick it up by the wings, bring it up close to my increasingly enfeebled eyes, and finally see that the heads were decidedly ant-like.  Yes, indeed, no doubt: they were ants!

At the same time, standing out there, I began to realize that they weren’t coming into the yard on the breeze, but were rising up from  the among the tufts of gramma grass stalks now heavy with seed. Looking closer at the ground, I confirmed that indeed our local community of tiny “sugar ants” were on the move, at least some of them.  The ground was littered with them, milling about, making sense of these new diaphanous appendages and preparing to launch up and out into a sudden freedom from the solid, welcoming ground that was all their kin had known til now.

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Wow! Sun-diving comet and coronal mass ejection

More often than you might imagine, tiny comets get sucked into the sun’s massive gravitational vortex, and die sparkling little deaths as “sun-divers.”  In recent years, the SOHO satellites, which are constantly watching the sun, have shown us the final hours of these fragments of the distant outer solar system.  Well, this week, just after a sun-diver met its fate, a pretty darn impressive coronal mass ejection blew out of the sun:

About the movie above: first, it may take a short while for it to fully load, but once it does, it will continue to repeat itself.  It shows a 9-hour period late on October 1st.  The white circle is the actual size of the sun; the larger masked area simply blocks out most of the bright solar corona, so the subtler dynamics of the outer corona can be imaged. The coronal mass ejection seen here is not unusual, or especially large; during the more active years in the sun’s 11-year solar activity cycle, such eruptions occur anywhere from daily to weekly.

A click on the image will take you to the page from which I grabbed this, where you can read a bit about whether this reaction we see above is a coincidence, and follow a couple links to a smaller but surprisingly clear event last summer that first opened the question: could a tiny comet actually trigger a solar reaction? Apparently, the idea isn’t considered as outlandish as it once was.

But beyond the new science that may be emerging, this little movie gives us a chance to simply revel in the dynamic beauty that is our local star.

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