Termites are notorious for causing significant damage to homes. If homeowners spot piles of discarded wings, it may be an indicator that established termites are nearby and looking for new nesting sites.
Winged termites, also known as alates, are swarmers that fly together to pair up for reproduction. The wings are a distinguishing characteristic as they feature a pattern of cross-veins that form rectangular cells.
When the conditions are right, winged termites called swarmers take off from their parent colonies in large numbers. They’re a little like ants, except that they don’t carry pollen or sting. During a termite swarm, these tiny insects are attracted to lights and other sources of heat. They don’t bite or sting, but they can cause damage to the wood in your home. Seeing a termite swarm can be unsettling, and it’s important to know what to do if you see them.
Unlike worker and soldier termites, swarmers have two pairs of wings. Because of their appearance, they’re often mistaken for flying ants. Both species have front wings that are longer than their back wings, and a close inspection is needed to distinguish them. In addition, swarming termites shed their wings as soon as they land, while ants don’t.
The swarmers aren’t looking for food, but rather for places to start new colonies. They’re especially attracted to warm, damp soil. This is why you’re most likely to see them after a rainstorm. They also have a strong odor, which some people find unpleasant.
Once swarmers find their targets, they pair off and mate. Male and female termites then select a place to establish a nest, where they’ll become king and queen of the colony. Termite swarmers don’t live long after mating, so it’s important to act fast once you discover them.
It’s best to contact your local termite control company as soon as you notice a swarm of swarmers. Don’t try to spray them with over-the-counter aerosols. This could damage or stain building materials and leave a messy, hard-to-clean mess.
During a termite swarm, you may also hear tapping sounds in your walls. These are caused by the swarmers banging their heads against walls and floors as they travel through the wood in your home. These sounds can cause cracks in the walls and ceilings. They can also weaken door and window frames, causing them to stick or become difficult to open and close. In addition, termite swarmers can create tunnels under foundations and in walls, which leads to expensive structural damage.
Termites are very important to our ecosystem because they help decompose dead wood, providing a habitat for many organisms and enriching the soil. In the process, they release carbon back into the air as methane and carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. In fact, the carbon released by termites is comparable to the amount of CO2 emitted by cars and airplanes over an entire year.
Unlike other insects, most termites are social and live in groups called colonies. Each termite colony contains a king and queen, workers, soldiers and other reproductives, with each caste performing different tasks to support the survival of the colony. Winged male and female termites emerge from their nests in spring, shed their wings and begin searching for mates. Once a king and queen pair finds a suitable nest site, they mate and then establish a colony.
A typical termite mound consists of soil particles, faeces and chewed wood. These nests can be very complex, resembling stone arrangements or cathedrals from a distance. Some species build wedge-shaped mounds with a north-south axis, like a navigation system. The complex mounds provide a sheltered environment for the termites. It is not clear why these species build this type of nest, but it may be a way to regulate the temperature of their nests.
When they are foraging, a colony’s workers tunnel through and consume anything that contains cellulose – the main component of wood. They also tunnel through non-cellulose materials, such as foamboard and plastic. Workers can chew through a sheet of plywood in about a month, and a colony that consists of 100,000 individuals can consume about 50 tons of timber in their lifetime.
Although we usually think of a termite nest in the ground, some species, such as subterranean and drywood termites, can build nests in trees and other woody structures aboveground. Such nests must have a constant source of moisture to sustain the thin-skinned workers. This requirement makes them potential pests in buildings, where water sources may be limited (e.g. indoor plants on pavers, leaking pipes and roofs).
The workers have pale bodies with large compound eyes, and some species have two body forms, mandibulate (fully-jawed) and nasute (long-nosed). The soldier caste is larger than the worker caste and has a dark head. These are the defenders of the colony. The other major role of the worker and soldier castes is to guard the nest against fungi that could destroy it.
Termites trash homes, destroying wooden beams and walls, furniture, and more. In the worst-case scenario, these wood-eating pests can damage a home so severely that the structure needs to be completely rebuilt. Fortunately, homeowners can prevent this costly scenario from ever occurring by detecting termite signs and contacting a professional immediately if any of them appear in the house.
Most termite colonies, when mature enough, will produce swarms of winged male and female termites. These alates, as they’re sometimes called, are able to fly and mate on the way to a new colony, which they will then establish in wet soil. When swarms of flying termites appear in or around homes, this is an indicator that the colony nearby is active and may have already begun damaging wood structures inside.
In addition to swarming, homeowners may also notice pencil-width mud tubes extending out of the ground, spreading like veins. They can also be alert for piles of shed wings, which are often left in open areas, such as window sills. If there’s any question that a home is a target of an active termite infestation, a professional can use a special tool to conduct a thorough inspection and determine the extent of the problem.
The best treatment for termites is prevention, but if the damage has already started to occur, a structural engineer can assess a home and recommend repairs to make sure a building is safe and sound. In many cases, this will involve fumigating the entire building with specialized chemicals that seep into every crack and crevice of wood to kill both existing and dormant termites.
Despite being extremely destructive, termites don’t spread disease and are not known to cause any direct harm to humans. However, an infestation can be a serious health hazard, especially for those who have asthma or allergies. As the termites eat through the weakened wood, they churn up dust and particles that can trigger an attack in those with these conditions.
There are plenty of things that can raise a homeowner’s blood pressure, including mortgage and insurance payments and unexpected repair costs. But there’s probably nothing more fearful than a termite infestation, particularly one with flying swarmers.
While it’s not a pleasant sight, a termite swarm is an indication that the existing colony is filling up and needs to spread. Swarming is also a good time to check for other signs of an infestation, including mud tubes (described above), wood damage and actual dead termites themselves in the soil or on window sills.
The majority of swarmers will not become queens or kings and will lose their wings as they land on new territories to establish their own colonies. Those who do become the kings and queens will build a new nest in the soil, but those that don’t succeed will break off their wings so they can’t fly and will spend the rest of their lives tunneling in the ground.
When a swarm of winged termites lands on your home, it’s important to not panic and take action. The best first step is to look for discarded wings on window sills and other open areas around your house. The more discarded wings you see, the larger the termite infestation.
Using a flashlight, carefully inspect the area where the termites are landing for actual live insects. If you see any, mark the spot with tape and call a termite control expert for a free inspection of your property.
If you can’t find any actual live insects and are still worried, collect some of the swarmers themselves for identification. Ants and termites swarm at the same time and look similar, but a termite’s antennae are straight and its waist is uniformly thicker than an ant’s. Ants also have constricted waists and forewings that are longer than hind wings.
A professional termite control company can use a variety of methods to protect your home from an onslaught of swarmers, including termite barriers and soil treatments. In addition to these traditional forms of protection, many termite specialists now offer termite baits, which are slow-acting insecticides encased in cellulose or wood and placed underground at regular intervals around the foundation of your home.
If you’re concerned that your house is infested with termites, don’t hesitate to contact an Orkin pro for a free termite inspection. We’ll determine whether you have a problem and create a termite treatment plan that works for your budget.