As a homeowner, should you be worried if you see a cluster of small insect wings by a window or in a spider’s web? Could these be ominous signs that your house is under attack from termites? Possibly.
Termite swarms are often a feature of the warm, humid nights preceding rain in southern Utah. For many young children, the gentle, drifting flight of dozens of insects often holds a fascination. But for a homeowner, that cloud of bugs could mean serious trouble.
What is a termite swarm and how much of a threat does it pose to your property?
What is a termite swarm?
A termite swarm is the way a colony of termites expands its territory. The timing and size of a swarm may vary by termite species. A swarm can occur in April through October. The number of flying termites in a swarm can also vary from a dozen or so for Drywood termites to thousands if they are Subterranean termites.
The swarm is composed of males and females of a stage of termite called an alate. These are reproductive termites, produced for the specific purpose of swarming, hence their common name of ‘swarmer’.
The swarm is often over quickly, perhaps in only 30 minutes. If you miss it, the only evidence you might find is a few scattered wings on the ground. There may also be some dead termites but often it’s just the wings that remain to show a swarm has been – and gone.
What is an Alate?
Alates, also commonly known as flying termites, winged termites, or swarmers, can be either male or female. Whether young termite nymphs develop into soldiers or alates is controlled by pheromones (chemical signals) produced by the queen once the termite colony has reached its optimum size. This may take three or four years for a normal drywood termite colony.
Until that time, the colony produces what are known as secondary reproductives – fertile males and females – but without wings. These are on standby to replace the queen or her mate, should one die but they take no part in the colony expansion.
The life of an alate is dangerous and, in most cases, short. Alates have poor sight and limited flying ability. Most can barely fly a few dozen yards. They rely on a light breeze to carry them further. That’s one reason the termites only swarm on warm, humid nights in the presence of a light wind.
A short life
As many as 99% of alates die during or immediately after the swarm without mating. Most end up as food for birds, reptiles, insects, and other predators. Those that don’t get eaten often perish due to dehydration.
During the swarm, alates from many nearby colonies will take to the air. Females will use pheromones to attract mates which is why a swarm will normally consist of clusters of male termites around females.
As soon as they land, or fall to the ground, the termites’ wings fall off. This is a distinction peculiar to Drywood termites. A few alates of other species may drop their wings on landing but most keep them for a short while. For example, in St George, you may see swarms of Subterranean as well as Drywood termites.
A new colony is born
Once a pair of alates mate, the two are known as king and queen. They will immediately look for a suitable place to start their new colony. Ideal locations for Drywood termites are small cracks in wood, unsealed knots, poorly constructed joints, and similar exposed or overlapping areas of wood.
The king and queen will use the gap in the wood to start a small chamber where the queen will lay a small number of eggs that hatch within a few weeks. Initially, the king and queen will look after the hatchlings. This is why the alates are given extra nourishment during their development so they can store the fats needed for this lean period. It is this extra fat that makes the alates so appealing to predators!
After their second molt, the nymphs will become workers and feed the king and queen.
For the first year, the queen will only lay a few eggs. Those eggs will mainly produce workers whose job is to enlarge the nest and keep the queen and new nymphs fed.
At the end of the first year, the queen will have fully matured and started to lay larger numbers of eggs. The colony will now grow faster.
After three or four years, the colony might contain a few thousand individuals and be large enough for the queen to secrete the pheromones needed to produce a new batch of alates. And with them, the cycle starts again.
Unlike its sibling alates that lasted maybe an hour or two, a successful Drywood queen termite can live more than ten years!
Are termite swarms dangerous?
The termite swarms themselves are not dangerous. The alates do not bite and cannot sting.
The majority of alates end up in the food chain, providing nourishing food for a horde of insectivorous creatures.
The kings and queens do very little damage to wood aside from excavating a small chamber.
But it is not the swarm that homeowners should worry about. It is the aftermath. Even after the king and queen have started their nest, producing hundreds and then thousands of hungry, wood-chomping workers, it is likely you will be unaware of their presence and the damage being done. That is until the next swarm – which might be four years after the colony has started!
Why you need a termite inspection
If you find wings inside the house, alates from an existing (unknown?) colony in your property may have started another one. It is not uncommon for Drywood termites to have more than one colony in your house, each with its own egg-producing queen. The combined termite numbers in multiple colonies in a single property can be in the tens of thousands of hungry workers!
Be aware, that what you think is a termite swarm may be flying ants. So don’t reach for the bug spray just yet! (Most will be dead before you find it anyway.) Before you take any action, speak to
Southwest Exterminators, the pest assassins. Different termites need different solutions to remove them.
So, while children may find termite swarms fascinating, they are a good reminder to property owners – home or business – that a termite inspection is needed. Don’t leave it too late. Ask your residential pest assassins at Southwest Exterminators about our termite inspections today.