To a degree seldom grasped even by entomologists, the modern insect fauna has become predominantly social.
~Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson, The Ants.
I had too much to do on such a beautiful weekend, but I did manage a stroll through the woods on Saturday. I checked on the status of a small population of Yellow Lady Slippers that have survived the onslaught of the local deer (no flowers as yet), and then walked down toward the creek to see what birds might be out and about. But something caught my eye along the path before I reached the creek….some movement.
It was a writhing mass of termites on a log along the path. They were coming up in a line from somewhere under the soil near the log, crawling up to the tallest point on the log, and were then seemingly engulfed in a termite jam. I have seen this behavior many times in the woods in this region, often with several adjacent colonies emerging together. I’ve never figured out how they manage to synchronize their emergence, but on this day, this was the only action I could see. A relatively small swarm as termite dispersals go, perhaps only a coupe of hundred or so winged termites, looking to set off and form new colonies. I did a couple of quick videos as so much of the fascination of stumbling upon this scene was watching how they move.
This shows the action when I first came upon it. The termites seemed almost frantic, but unsure of what to do once they reached the pinnacle of the log.
As I laid there next to the log, listening to the birds overhead, and watching these industrious insects, the termites began to take off. They are not the most graceful of fliers, but who am I to criticize. The numbers gradually dwindled until only a couple of termites remained, one with damaged wings that left it unable to join the mass take-off.
Things usually don’t turn out well for those with damaged wings. A couple of ants were patrolling the log looking for easy prey and quickly subdued the straggler and carted it away. I have often first noticed these swarms by the presence of predators such as dragonflies and birds gathering to feast on the temporary abundance of winged protein.
This mass flight event is made up of winged males and female termites that are capable of reproduction. They are called alates. Termite society consists of several castes – wingless workers and soldiers, a king and queen, and these winged swarmers, destined to be kings and queens for a new colony (or food for some hungry predator).
The termites had not yet started to fly when I first encountered them, but, after watching them for about thirty minutes, it was all over. There were no more termites visible on the log.
The only evidence that anything had happened was a scattering of discarded wings lying on the ground and rocks near the log. An entomologist in the early 1900’s (Thomas E. Snyder) described what happens…After the adults have flown a short distance in an irregular, wobbly, manner, they fall to the ground, and, by catching the tips of the wings against some object and turning sideways they pry them off at a suture or line of weakness near the base, leaving stubs. The now wingless pair apparently follow each other around for a couple of days and then mate and start the colony-building process, if all goes well.
Now, for a guy that has lived in wooden houses most of his life, the sight of swarming termites should be cause for concern, but I have never had problems with them (knock on, oh, you know). Besides, these under-appreciated, yet abundant, members of our forest fauna are truly fascinating. They play a critical role in the removal of dead wood from our forests, and provide other ecological services such as soil aeration and, of course, food for insect predators. And it was a good way to pass thirty minutes in the woods, watching royal couples take flight to new lands.