Question of the month

Alate arrival

Lots of these insects flew into our home last night. This morning I found many of them dead and without their wings. We are worried that they are termites. Are they?

Answer

These unfortunate termite alates have lost their wings, but failed to start a new colony.

The onset of summer rain becomes the trigger for many significant events in the natural world. Cicadas finally emerge from their long underground development, frogs chorus and termites fly.

For a brief period of their life, individuals of the ‘privileged’ alate caste, nurtured within each termite colony, enjoy the freedom of flight. The alates are the winged females and males that disperse from their parent colony.  This dispersal event usually occurs on warm, humid evenings just before or after a rain event. It is often synchronised and many colonies in an area release their alates at the same time.

Paradoxically, the alates are attracted to light even though their flight usually occurs at night. The flight itself is brief and the alates shed their wings shortly after they land. Then begins the desperate search for suitable conditions in which to start a new colony. The young queens require very specific requirements in terms of suitable food and moisture and the vast majority perish.

Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to identify an alate termite to species, even if we have the specimen under a microscope.  Most termite species identification is achieved by examining soldiers or workers, these castes are more easily distinguished from one another and it is their features on which identification keys are based. Many of the species of termite in Australia are harmless to construction timber (timber in service) and may for example, feed exclusively on grass. 

These alate incursions into our homes are generally regarded to be extremely unlikely to result in a new destructive nest. The symptoms of a serious termite attack are often much harder to detect. It is the presence of soldiers or workers in a house, with accompanying signs of termite damage that should cause concern.

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