Flying Termites

Last night the termites of St. John took flight…

In late summer the reproductive castes of St. John termites begin their preparation to leave their nest for the first and only time in their lives. They develop wings to fly with and compound eyes to give them the temporary sense of sight, which they will need in the vast and perilous world outside the confines of the termitarium. They also change from their usual pale color to a dark brown, the newly acquired pigment being necessary to protect them from the light of day. The transformed reproductives, now called alates, wait for the signal that will coordinate an airborne exodus of alates from all the different colonies in the area.

The awaited sign comes in the form of the first big rain in autumn. When the rain stops and the sun sets, the alates fly off en masse into the night sky. Termites are not strong flyers, and their flight, although slow and drifting, is generally adequate enough to put a modest amount of distance between them and their home nest. The flying termites tend to be attracted by lights, which is why you may come home some night after a big rain and see hundreds of winged insects swarming around a lighted area or crawling around your floor. Upon landing, their wings fall off and it is possible that you will not see any bugs at all, but will find piles of insect wings strewn about.

Outside their nest the termites are defenseless. They are easy and ready prey for any creature who finds them appetizing. The mass swarming of the termites, however, acts to overwhelm these predators, who can eat only so many of the little delicacies leaving the survivors with the opportunity to complete their one and only mission in life, which is to reproduce.

The unusually hard rainfall that signals the mass departure is an event that all termites in a given area will experience at the same time, thus increasing the probability that termites from one nest will mate with termites from another nest. This is crucial for the well being of the species, because the residents of each individual nest are most likely descended from the same king and queen, making them brothers and sisters, relatives too closely related for healthy genetic combinations.

The airborne journey is just the beginning of the termite romance. After the termites land and shed their wings, they pair off into male and female couples. The female leads the way while her love struck partner follows close behind. Together they search for the location of their future home, which will most likely be a crack or defect in a tree trunk or branch. The couple will then work together to make a hole in the wood. When the excavation is large enough, they will seal off the entrance with their feces. The humble hollowed out section of tree now becomes a royal bedchamber where the two previously undistinguished termites will live together as king and queen “until death do they part”.

The royal couple then mate, and the first eggs are laid. The eggs hatch into tiny larvae, which have the capability of developing into workers, soldiers, or reproductives. The destiny of the larvae is determined by such factors as diet, time of year, and the introduction of a chemical called a pheromone. This important chemical is produced by the queen. It is excreted through her anus and imparted to the recipient termites when they groom the queen with their mouths. Pheromones are also responsible for the attraction of male and female termites to each other at mating time, for communication, and for trail marking, so that the blind workers and soldiers can find their way through the complex maze of trails and passageways in and around the termitarium.

Tropical termite queens can become quite large and may measure as much as four inches long. The termite queen is well taken care of by her comparatively tiny king, who spends most of his life feeding and licking her. The queen can remain fertile for as long as twenty-five years, and as she gets older and larger, she may lay thousands of eggs per day….read more

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