Flying termites – The nuptial flight

Flying termites or termite swarmers/alates swarm during the right climatic conditions, such as after a rainy spell following a dry season. But they don’t just appear, the termite colony has to produce this special caste, which it does from time to time (some more frequent than others). During certain periods, some nymphs will develop into reproductive males and females with wings; once they develop and mature, these alates will then fly from the nest at the right time.

In an earlier post, the photos illustrate the difference between flying ants and termites; generally speaking, flying termites have different looking waists and wings. But both ants and termites produce these flying males and females for the sole purpose of breeding.

The nuptial flight of both flying termites and ants often takes place at night. While ants have a clear distinction between the male and female (the male is much smaller than the female), in termites the difference is very slight, and both male and female are the same size.

What happens during the nuptial flight? Here is an example from Macrotermes gilvus, a common termite with many subspecies found throughout South East Asia. The swarms tend to take place around 12-3 am in the wee hours of the morning. Just one light can attract hundreds of flying termites.

Flying termite femaleOnce female alates alight on a wall, they normally flutter their wings and emit a pheromone to attract passing males. In the case of M. gilvus, the female stays motionless with outstretched wings, beating her wings in slow motion. When a male finds her, they do a tandem run with the male following closely behind the female. During this tandem run, they will shed their wings, but in many cases they are not in a hurry to do it, as my photo below shows.

Tandem running lasts for as long until the pair find a suitable spot to excavate a chamber in the ground. Due to numerous predators, termites don’t wait long to decide on a spot to dig themselves in. Out of thousands of flying termites, only a very small percentage finally survive to start a new colony.

Flying termite swarm

Above – A swarm of flying termites (M. gilvus)

Termite swarmers on the floor

Above – Termites don’t fly for long, and soon the ground is crawling with them.

Flying termites tandem running

Above – A pair of flying termites tandem running, the female in front and the male behind.

Flying termites mortality rate

Above – The mortality rate of flying termites is very high, over 90% most of the time.

Flying termite pair digging into the ground

Above – A pair of termite alates with their wings shed, digging into the ground to begin their colony.

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