Termites

The first sighting was beautiful. Earlier this spring a scattering of gossamer-winged termites fluttered through Camp Salmen, their wings brightly backlit and shimmering in the late afternoon sun. The show only lasted a short time as they made their way to who-knows-where. 

 

Fast forward to a recent warm, humid night: millions of flying termites were EVERYWHERE and going nowhere in particular – except landing harmlessly onto your hair, face, arms, legs and under collars.  They were captivated by any light that shined, forming huge, chaotic clouds underneath streetlights and even appeared to be attracted to anything that was merely light-colored. If only they would have all gone for the bright moon and left us alone.

The termite hoard crowded past cracked-open car doors to harass the driver and then followed him into the house. His strategy was to remain in the dark as much as possible and be quick about getting inside. Termites that got inside would zero-in on reading lamps and continue the harassment. They even found ways to get through unknown cracks to leave drifts of corpses lining the baseboards the next day. For geckos, bats and various nocturnal insectivores it must been a Feast Day. 

Interesting termite facts: termites are “eusocial,” that is, they come in different specialized forms in order to perform certain roles in their society. There are big, bloated queens who can live for 50 years while spewing out up to 30,000 eggs a day and the elite fertile males that breed with the; workers for taking care of the babies and keeping the nest in order, soldiers with big pincer snouts for defending the colony and of course, the small, plump, white babies. Other social insects like bees, ants and wasps also do this and by working together as a group these social insects can build nests, find food and raise the next generation; things an individual would find impossible to do.

It so happens we live on a part of the planet covered with the termite’s favorite food – cellulose. It’s what makes up trees, dead or alive, leaf litter and wooden houses. As anyone who may have tried knows, this is difficult stuff to digest and termites accomplish this with the help of symbiotic bacteria living in their gut.

So what’s with the wings? Why don’t they just stay in the ground or a rotten log and tend to their colonies and leave us alone? The reproductive males and females “alate” (sprout wings) and go to the air once or twice a year to socialize, find a mate and go back to the colony to get back to work.

The phenomenon of huge nocturnal termite clouds was brief and seemed to mysteriously end faster than it began. The next night there were almost no flying termites to be seen under the bright lights of Camp Salmen.

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