Sunday, May 18, 2014

Termite Swarm

Termites on the move
Mike Kromrey and I were checking out the baby vultures in the barn when a cloud of small white flying insects caught our attention.  On the bare ground below there was a swarm of winged insects racing around and several active small antlion trap pits nearby.  The barn swallows were swooping into the cloud like crazy.

I filmed this shaky video seen here and we decided that they were likely termites rather than ants but with no proof.  When I came back 30 minutes later to take some macrophotographs there wasn't a single one left, only two fence lizards with smiles on their faces.

When I think of termites, which isn't very often, I tend to lump them automatically with ants because of their social behavior and specialization of jobs.  They actually are not related to ants but are in the cockroach order Blattodea.  This accounts for the significant differences in their morphology.

Flying ants or termites?
There are several key differences.  Termites' antennae are curved and segments are bead like while ants' antennae are bent or elbowed.  The termite's body is middle broad versus the ant's narrow or "thread-waist."  Easier to see in these pictures, the termite's wings are similar in length and shape. The ant's hind wings are smaller and have a different shape.

No thread waist
Wings equal

"Its good to be King."  - Mel Brooks
Termites are "social" like bees and ants.  They have assigned tasks in their   society: workers, soldiers and reproducers.  In their normal daily activity only the king and queen are sexually mature, able to mate and reproduce.  They continually repopulate the colony which feeds them and cares for their young.

Termites swarming
The main way that termites expand their range is by "swarming."  Like the Vikings looking for new land to populate, they have to migrate and in this case all need to be able to reproduce.  This is best described by Termites 101.
"During the course of each year, numerous small, immature termites from established colonies transform into larger nymphs with wing buds. Some time later, these individuals further transform into sexually mature males and females called swarmers or alates. Swarmers have two pairs of long narrow wings of equal size. Unlike other termites in the colony, swarmers are dark-colored, and almost black in some species.
The combination of warm temperatures and rain in the spring leads swarmers to leave the nest in large numbers by flying through mud tubes, which are specially constructed tunnels for the termites to use to exit the colony. Termites continue to swarm throughout the warm season, although these swarms are less frequent than those during the spring. Colonies normally swarm only once per season, but may swarm multiple times. Later swarms generally do not match the intensity of the first swarm."
We were fortunate to be present just at the moment they were emerging and warming up their wings for flights to find a new home in some juicy wood.  Coming soon to a house near you.

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