Laura Punzone stepped outside her Oceanside home after dinner Tuesday and saw what she thought were thousands of tiny scraps of paper falling from the sky.
“It looked like snow, but it was 85 degrees outside,” she said. Punzone, 35, quickly realized they were insects and scurried back inside.
“It was pretty disgusting,” she said.
Punzone is one of the countless Long Islanders who has reported being terrorized by unusually large swarms of winged ants. Complaints on social media have ranged from the ants overtaking backyards to covering windshields.
Some residents have mistaken the winged creatures for mayflies or termites, but the flying ants aren’t dangerous and are simply searching for mates, experts say.
An established ant colony produces winged males and “virgin queens” which embark on a nuptial flight to mate with ants from other nests to avoid inbreeding, said Jeffry Petracca, entomology curator at Long Island Aquarium. After mating, the insects lose their wings.
There are several ant species common to Long Island that have synchronized mating flights this time of year that can cover a large geographical area, according to Dan Gilrein, an extension entomologist with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County.
Gilrein received several reports of the insects earlier this week from across Suffolk County.
It’s hard to pinpoint a cause for the surge in the creatures, he said. It could be related to the wet weather, which may provide ants with more rotting wood to inhabit. Or the heat may have allowed for an extra generation of ants to develop. But Gilrein said that’s all speculative.
It's "normal for insect populations to go through surges and declines" and residents shouldn't be alarmed, he added.
Brian Taggart, an exterminator with Miracle Pest Solutions Inc. in East Meadow, said he received nearly 100 inquiries about the insects Tuesday. Most of the calls were from panicked residents scattered across the Island who didn't know what to make of the insects and feared they were dangerous, he said.
The ants aren't harmful and shouldn't damage a home, Taggart said. If they do become a nuisance, Taggart advises residents to take a photograph so the insects can be properly identified and to call an exterminator.
“It’s one of the worst I’ve seen for ant swarms,” said Taggart, who has worked as an exterminator for 15 years.
In Suffolk County, Lynn Frank, the technical director of Suburban Exterminating in Smithtown, said he's heard similar reports. One shocked customer described a swarm so thick they were concerned about inhaling the insects, he said.
But the flying swarms likely won't be here to stay. Gilrein believes the ants "have had their day" and won't be mating for much longer.