Have you ever seen a ton of flying ants emerging from a tree or your house in the spring? Are you sure they were flying ants and not flying termites? Can termites even fly?
Most people know that ants can get wings and fly at certain stages of their lives. But what about insects that you may find to emerging from lumbar in your home on a spring day? What about night, do ants fly and swarm at night? Or do termites fly?
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Some termites do fly, but only alates.
Termites traditionally belong to the taxonomic order Isoptera, a term which combines the Greek words iso, which translates to equal, and ptera, meaning wings. One may correctly surmise from this classification that not only do termites have wings but also have forewings and hindwings that are of equal length.
In fact, most termites never develop wings; however, mature colonies will periodically produce a number of both male and female winged termites. These flying termites, called alates, leave the safety of the colony in large numbers to breed and establish new colonies. This behavior is called swarming.
Swarming typically happens in the spring or summer, depending on the species and environmental factors such as temperature and humidity. Mature colonies usually only produce one swarm per year, consisting of dozens to thousands of individual insects. Swarming termites may be most active during morning, evening or mid-day, again depending on species and other factors. Only a few species tend to swarm at night.
These usually-reclusive insects are most visible when they swarm. Large numbers of winged termites strongly suggest a mature colony is nearby; this is often the first indication a homeowner has showing the homeowner that termites are present. Some unfortunate homeowners have even had the unpleasant experience of large termite swarms emerging inside their homes!
As most properties have an assortment of small winged insects fluttering about, it can be difficult to identify termites. Unlike their earth-bound siblings, sexually mature winged termites are dark-bodied and may strongly resemble flying ants. Upon closer inspection, however, the two insects are easy to tell apart:
- Ant forewings are noticeably longer than hindwings; termite wings are of equal size.
- Ant wings rarely extend significantly past the end of the ant’s body; termite wings are much longer than the termite’s body, often more than twice as long.
- Ants have a highly constricted waist; termites have a thick, uniform waist.
- Ant antennae are elbowed in the middle; termite antennae are straight.
While swarming termites—and ants, for that matter—pose no danger to people, pets or livestock, homeowners spotting large clusters of winged termites in, on or around their home or outbuildings would be wise to have the structures inspected for the presence of a colony.
Snug as a Bug
Once a male and female alate finds a suitable location for a new colony—at which point they discard their wings and are referred to as kings and queens—they start producing offspring destined to become either workers or soldiers. Young colonies with few individuals are very vulnerable, but, over the course of several years, will eventually grow into a mature colony consisting of thousands to millions of individuals living in a complex network of tunnels. Large colonies may have multiple queens and, in some species, queens may live upwards of 50 years and produce over 30,000 eggs per day.
While some species of tropical termites build impressive mounds or construct arboreal nests, North American termites typically set up colonies under the soil or in rotting trees—and sometimes in man-made structures. Because these soft-bodied insects are very vulnerable to predators, temperature and humidity, they tend to be secretive and will construct shelter tubes that allow them to travel between foraging sites without being exposed to external threats.
Their reclusive behavior often means termites are not detected in or around a dwelling until a colony has become quite large and well-established. The majority of termite damage also tends to be hidden; by the time it is noticed on walls or other materials, damage is usually quite extensive in less-obvious areas. Termites do not need to reside within a home to cause damage; they may commute from nearby outdoor colonies to forage for food and building materials.
Though not believed to be closely related, termite behavior is strikingly similar to that of ants and bees; these highly social animals all live in colonies with a queen, divide labor among castes, build complex nests and communicate with pheromones and vibrations.
Termites inhabit tropical, subtropical and temperate regions around the world. Over 3,000 species of termite have been identified globally, and it is thought many more species have yet to be discovered. Around 50 species of termite call North America home, but only about 20 of those pose a threat to structures.
Termites as a whole are divided into three broad categories:
- Subterranean Termites: typically build their colonies underground and can be found in every state except Alaska. These insects cause a tremendous amount of damage to structures each year as they forage for food and building materials.
- Drywood Termites: are found in warm coastal states. Though not as pervasive as subterranean varieties, these opportunistic insects regularly infest homes, outbuildings, furniture and anything else constructed of wood.
- Dampwood Termites: as the term suggests, live in damp wood. They’re typically found in Pacific Coast states and only encroach on structures that are damp and in the process of decaying.
Termites feed on dead or decaying plant matter, predominately wood and leaf litter, and play a significant role in breaking down these materials so nutrients can be returned to the soil. Despite their tiny size, soil-dwelling termites move a lot of earth while building their ever-expanding nests, which aerates the soil and increases moisture, and their nitrogen-rich waste improves soil fertility. Termites are also an important food source for many mammals, birds and other insects—some of which feed exclusively on termites.
Unfortunately, in human dwellings, a termite colony’s quest for food may extend to any material made of wood or plant fibers—even picture frames and books. Termites can also damage cloth, carpet, rubber and soft plastics as they forage for building materials, and they’ve even been known to consume certain types of crops.
Once a termite colony is established in or near a home it can be very difficult to eradicate. The best way to prevent termite damage is to prevent termite infestations in the first place:
- Remove any dead trees—including stumps—near structures.
- Don’t allow lumber or firewood to accumulate near buildings.
- Don’t allow plant debris to accumulate around exterior walls or in gutters – including mulch.
- Seal cracks around windows, doors, pipes, and so forth.
- Install screens if windows or doors are left open.
- Repair water leaks and remove standing water quickly.
Homes should be regularly inspected for termite damage, particularly in basements, around windows, doors or other entry points, near the ground around exterior walls and any dark and/or moist area. Catching these unwelcome guests early can make a tremendous difference in mitigating damage and ease of removal.
While there is an abundance of advice available on the internet for getting rid of termites yourself, in reality, these methods seldom do anything but remove a handful of worker drones—which are quickly replaced in a mature colony. A professional exterminator will have the training and, perhaps more significantly, the tools necessary to locate and completely remove even very large colonies.