Fall Phenomenon: Termites in Flight

September 26th, 2014

Every year, just a day or two after the fall equinox, I’ve noticed a peculiar phenomenon in my backyard. I’ve noticed it since I was a little kid. Hundreds of tiny winged creatures rain down from the sky and land on the driveway. Then, they quickly discard their wings and proceed to find a mate. When they find a compatible partner, they form a train of two and scurry off to consummate their new relationship. If conditions are right, the two will mate and form a new colony. The male would become the king, the female would become the queen, and for decades the queen would pump out millions of baby termites. Those babies would grow up to become workers, soldiers, or the elite few that are able to mate.

It was a real treat to catch the termites’ nuptial flight on camera. I happened to step out of the house at the right time. After a long drought, it started raining in the San Francisco Bay Area. The parched ground needed it, and so did the termites. My hypothesis is that the termites responded to the recent rain. I also think that the termites are “programmed” to take flight around this time of year. I wondered if this was a local phenomenon; thinking that maybe this is the “life cycle” of a single colony near my house. My boyfriend, however, said that he saw it “raining” termites at his house several miles away. So perhaps autumn brings us falling termites along with falling leaves!

It’s fascinating how social insects like termites, ants, and bees operate as though they are intelligent. In reality, they probably aren’t consciously aware of their decisions. Instead, they are automatons simply carrying out the instructions encoded in their DNA for the survival of their species. It’s like their colony is a chess-playing computer AI. Genes, hormones, abundance of resources, and population counts interplay to create a cool little miniature Game of Thrones.

References

To learn more about these notorious creatures, check out the links below.


Categories: science