I have an observation I was fortunate enough to see in person last September (2021) that I’d like to share, including a short video or two I filmed, and a wonderful animation slide made for me by one of our local San Juan Island artists, April Randall, who I asked to illustrate what I witnessed, but did not have an opportunity to record on camera.
We are entering the season – late summer/early fall, when some species of ants and termites send out their winged reproductives, also known in scientific lingo as “alates.” These flying individuals have reached reproductive maturity and their purpose is utilitarian: to fly away from home, mate, and establish a new colony…IF they are lucky enough not to be eaten or fall to some other random fate in nature.
Over the past seven years, I’ve been able to watch as one particular colony of Western Subterranean Termites (Reticulitermes hesperus) sends out their offspring to do exactly this. The event happens annually during the first 12 days of September without fail. They swarm to the surface, exiting en-masse out of the little hole in the ground, to launch out into the great, wide world. The air is filled with their tiny black bodies and translucent wings – wings that last just long enough for them to disperse far enough away from home, so as to not compete with the parent colony.
Many, or probably it would be fair to say “most” of these winged reproductives or alates, aren’t successful, if by defining success, your measure is for them to begin a new colony. However, if you measure success from another perspective – that of Mother Nature, this event is indeed a success – for Mother Nature hasn’t forgotten the food web and the myriad of other species who must forage for food in order to survive.
In the videos below, you will see a close up of these Western Subterranean Termite alates emerging from their underground colony which lies below our driveway in a network of old Douglas fir roots that were cut down long ago by the former homeowner. As “momma” to a bearded dragon, I included some video of my pet, Drago, feasting on these termites as they emerged. Bearded Dragons are known to dine on termites in their native range in Australia, so I thought, “Why not?” Yes, he loves them! What I unfortunately don’t have video footage of is what we saw after we came back into the house. There was a little flock of Yellow-Rumped Warblers waiting for us (mostly for Drago) to leave that spot. As soon as the coast was clear, those little birds were down on the ground, eating the termites as fast as they emerged.
So here’s where I brought April into the picture. April made the animation and I think it’s important because it gives you something to share with your friends about how the food web works – or how it’s supposed to work. It’s also important because many, many people automatically see termites as something bad, a PEST. While that may be true if they are eating your home, it isn’t true in this case.
These termites have never bothered our home (not once in 7 years). We border a wooded area and there is plenty of habitat that termites need for survival. Some pest control operators will tell you right off though, that you have to be proactive. Get rid of the colony. Well, they also want you to PAY them, so don’t believe everything you hear. What I’d like you to consider is how Mother Nature is providing for these little birds – and other species of wildlife. The Warblers (and other wildlife) don’t have a grocery store to pop into whenever they are hungry. They rely on seasonal (often temporary surges) where food is abundant, so they can eat enough, storing energy to survive whenever they can’t find food. Feast or famine is a common theme for wildlife. They may even have to travel for long distances to take advantage of a resource. Because Yellow-Rumped Warblers can live for 6-7 years, they may well remember how to find this exact spot on our property each year.
Please feel free to share with you friends and family. I hope you enjoy the animation. This year, I’m going to be waiting with my camera in hopes of capturing this special moment.
About Reticulitermes hesperus:
Lifespan of a Queen – up to 30 years
Geographic Distribution: along the Pacific Coast (BC-CA-Mexico) east to ID & w. NV
References, Further Reading, and Artist Information
Bugguide (Reticulitermes Hesperus) https://bugguide.net/node/view/183940
Keller, Laurent. (1998). Queen lifespan and colony characteristics in ants and termites [Review]. Insectes Sociaux. 45. 235-246. 10.1007/s000400050084.
April Randall, The Windy Painter – https://www.instagram.com/windypainter/?hl=en&fbclid=IwAR26Joo9sFvw1KUnA_0tiQe2wObCAMTNh8Rzxy6pkZU1WKaMtD_vcmDEliw
I love your blog, thank you so much for all you offer here! This post couldn’t have been timed better as I had a swarm of these termites in my garden last night. I immediately came in and read your post delivered in my inbox earlier in the day. I have a lot of chorus frogs and many birds who will be happy for these snacks. Your perspective of the need for all the bugs in the food chain helps me not understand and freak out about them. Your tent caterpillar post in the spring was just like this. They were grossing me out until I realized all my bird friends needed them for food! And I had also never thought of yellow jackets as pollinators until you wrote about that. Now I see them on my dill and many other flowers and am glad! Thank you so much!!
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I’m so happy you enjoyed it. Yes, I was really amazed watching the little flock of birds on the ground gobbling these up. We’ve had damp wood termites flying at night and last night, I found a frog eating one and a really large spider at my porch light with several in its web. Thank you for your kind words. 🙂