The flying termites or alates

There are lots of misconceptions about flying termites or termite alates. In scientific lingo, we call them imagos or alates (winged reproductives). Some people think these flying termites can attack wood. Others think these flying termites can fight (with ants). The truth is, these flying termites are winged reproductives that comprise either males or females whose sole purpose is to start new colonies and become the future king and queen of their new colony.

At certain times of the year, a termite colony will produce future kings and queens to take part in a pre-nuptial flight in synchrony with other colonies of the same species. This happens for most of the matured colonies of the same species in a particular area; young colonies do not produce alates because of the resources required to nurture them to maturity and then release them.

These flying termites are fed some of the best food the nest has to offer and well taken care of until the big day. As such, they are loaded with fat stores designed to last them for a few months, until the first batch of eggs hatch into workers who will then forage for food and in the case of fungus building species like the Macrotermitinae, construct the first fungus combs.

For some species, these future kings and queens look so different from the ordinary workers or soldiers, or are very much larger than the other castes that they may seem to be from an entirely new species to the layman.

Flying termites

(Above) Flying termites (alates) swarming around a fluorescent light.

Alates from a Coptotermes species

(Above) Alates belonging to a Coptotermes species, with or without wings.

Flying termite detaching its wings.

(Above) A flying termite shedding its wings by means of using its rear legs and detaching from its wing stumps.

Only the flying termites have eyes

(Above) Only the flying termites have eyes, other castes do not.

Depending on species, these flying termite swarms can occur once or many times a year, per colony. The typical swarming season is after a spate of rain, following a dry spell, and usually takes place at or after dusk. In rural areas, these swarms congregate around lights and can be large. And no, these flying termite swarms do not threaten your home or are dangerous or aggressive in any way whatsoever.

These flying termite swarms are best regarded as a natural phenomenon, which are likely declining in urban areas as the numerous street lamps and other light sources disperse swarms and isolated termite alates are easy prey for ants, birds, lizards and other predators. Very few survive to start a new colony. Termites are poor fliers; the average dispersal range for most species is less than 100 meters (300 ft) from the original colony.