Termite Swarms: The Good, Bad and Ugly

Columns - From the Field

Termite swarms are a tip-off that a termite colony has invaded the structure and that gives PMPs an opportunity to help protect the biggest investment most people ever make.

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February 4, 2020

Editor’s note: This month we welcome to the pages of PCT a new technical quarterly column from Terminix International. A variety of authors from Terminix will occupy this space, starting with Doug Webb.

Termite infestations may not be a top-of-mind issue for most people — until that warm, beautiful day in late spring or early summer when swarming termites show up uninvited and make themselves at home in the living room. Both residential and commercial structures may have termite swarming events during the termite swarm season and although no one wants termites in their homes or businesses, there actually is some value in a termite swarm.

As pest management professionals, we are the first responders when termites swarm in a structure. A termite swarming event can be very scary for home and business owners alike. Whether there are just a few drywood swarmers, several hundred eastern subterranean swarmers or several thousand Formosan swarmers, termites flying around the room are not easily ignored. Even if this is a first-time swarm experience, most people know that termites can cause significant damage to their structures and that an expensive treatment may be imminent.

So how can a termite swarm be a good thing? Termite swarms are a tip-off that a termite colony has invaded the structure and that gives PMPs an opportunity to help protect the biggest investment most people ever make. Termites are cryptic creatures that spend most of their time working and feeding out of sight. Without swarms, termite infestations could progress undetected for years, leading to excessive damage and repair costs. While there are other signs of termite infestation, they may not be as spectacular as a termite swarm in the living room and are likely to go unnoticed.

WHY DO TERMITES SWARM? Swarming termites, also known as alates, are the reproductive members of a termite colony. While most of the members in a colony are worker termites that damage structures as they feed, the sole purpose of the alates is to leave the colony, reproduce and sustain their species. Alates do not bite, sting or even eat wood, and simply letting your customer know that up front can lower anxiety levels substantially.

As alates get ready to swarm, they first prepare a swarm tube for a “launch site” and then wait patiently for the right conditions to ensure their highest probability of survival. They swarm into the air from hidden areas within the colony with each individual swarmer taking a brief flight that may only last a few seconds. They are not strong fliers, so after a short flight, they land, break their wings from their bodies and pair with a mating partner. The future queen leads the way traveling on foot to find a place to start a new colony as the king faithfully follows her to their new home.

Termite alates are mostly unsuccessful in finding a place to start a new family, especially when they swarm indoors where there is no access to soil. Most will die within a few hours from dehydration. Even when they swarm outdoors, the survival rate for termite swarmers is low. There are many predators and finding a suitable biome for starting a successful colony is no easy task in the short time they have.

For those mating pairs that do survive, a nuptial chamber is constructed underground by the king and queen, mating occurs and the first eggs soon will hatch into tiny larvae. The larvae will be tended by the king and queen until they are old enough to start helping with the developing colony. Most will become worker termites. Soldiers and reproductive termites will begin to develop as the colony matures. A network of tunnels and decentralized nesting chambers will develop, and as time passes, it will take more and more cellulose to provide food for the increasing workforce.

Depending on the termite species, size of the colony and other factors, there may be only a few swarmers or there may be thousands produced from a single colony. In areas of the country with dense colony counts, this can multiply into millions of swarmers exiting from multiple colonies on the same day or over a period of a few weeks. This is one reason termites are so successful and why termite swarmers can be such a nuisance. Whether there are a few hundred eastern subterranean termite swarmers flying around in a living room or millions of Formosan termites swarming outdoors at night affecting outdoor events and even traffic flow, it can be a harrowing experience.

Termite swarmers can be scary for customers; PMPs need to take time to explain the basics.
© cturtletrax | iStock

TERMITE DAMAGE. Termite swarmers are mostly a seasonal nuisance, but they indicate that the rest of the colony, including those that eat wood year round, have breached the building’s envelope. Most members of a termite colony remain hidden, constantly eating wood or other cellulose-containing materials they find and delivering digested cellulose to their nest mates to fuel the colony. This feeding behavior can severely damage wooden structural components and other cellulosic furnishings within a structure.

In both residential and commercial buildings, termite damage repairs can total thousands of dollars. For businesses, there is also the cost of downtime while rooms are under repair, possible negative experiences for customers and perhaps even damage to the firm’s reputation. Termites are much more than just an inconvenience — they can cause major disruption in homes and businesses and can have significant budgetary impacts.

WHAT TO DO. The first response many consumers have to a swarm is to use an aerosol spray. Sprays can make termites stick to surfaces, making cleanup difficult, and often contain solvents or other components that can stain or damage building materials. The biggest issue is that this type of treatment can give the false impression that termite swarmers have been killed and the problem is solved. Needless to say, PMPs should encourage consumers to not use sprays.

Pest management professionals can glean many bits of information when evaluating undisturbed areas where swarming has occurred. We know termite swarmers are attracted to strong lights (i.e., exterior windows). We know that just because swarmers congregate around the windows, it does not mean the infestation is in that immediate area. Often a small pinhole in the drywall on the far side of the room is where termites are entering and that should be the starting point for tracing back to the primary entry point. Successful PMPs are skilled at finding the source of the infestation rather than focusing on the location of swarmers.

To remove swarmers, use a vacuum cleaner. Most termites will die during this process, however, it is best to dispose of the vacuum bag. When termites start swarming, they often trickle out of a tiny hole over several hours or days so it may be necessary to vacuum multiple times over the next few days.

Like any pest challenge, identifying and treating for termites can be difficult and complex. The best way to help customers through a termite swarm event is to take the time to explain swarming behaviors, calm their fears about swarming termites and discuss the process for developing a solution. Thoroughly inspect the structure, evaluate the situation and explain your findings to the customer. This will help you provide an effective termite control plan that fits their situation and provides the protection that the customer expects.

W. Douglas Webb is technical services manager with Terminix International. He earned his master of science degree in wood science and technology from Mississippi State University, having specialized in wood-destroying insects and wood deterioration. He has served Terminix customers across the United States for more than 37 years.