Starting New Colonies
Just like your family, termite colonies need food, water and shelter to survive – and they work together to gather these resources. To make sure all of the work gets done, each colony includes three levels (castes) of termite society: workers, soldiers and reproductives. Each termite caste is assigned a specific job to keep the colony alive, such as the workers who gather food, soldiers who build shelter and reproductives who produce and tend to the young (larvae). The colony’s king and queen are known as primary reproductives, as they are the original founders of the colony.
Reproductives play a particularly important role in creating new termite colonies. Whether through swarming or budding, reproductives are the reason new colonies of termites move into your home and neighborhood.
In the Beginning: How New Subterranean Termite Colonies Form
Gary Bennett, Ph.D., Purdue University
New subterranean termite colonies can begin in one of two ways, through a swarm or by the budding of a new colony. In subterranean termite colonies, the role of primaries, or winged kings and queens, is to meet, mate and start new colonies. This process is called “swarming.” Termites whose role is to “back-up” the primary queen in their colony by producing extra eggs are called supplementary reproductives. Their role is to help to expand the colony’s foraging territory – a process called “budding.”
These roles allow termite colonies to disperse, establish new colonies in any soil environment, and ultimately invade other structures in order to find more wood (and thus, a more ample supply of food). To better understand how these new subterranean termite colonies are formed, let’s take a closer look at the swarming and budding processes.
During the course of each year, numerous small, immature termites from established colonies transform into larger nymphs with wing buds. Some time later, these individuals further transform into sexually mature males and females called swarmers or alates. Swarmers have two pairs of long narrow wings of equal size. Unlike other termites in the colony, swarmers are dark-colored, and almost black in some species.
The combination of warm temperatures and rain in the spring leads swarmers to leave the nest in large numbers by flying through mud tubes, which are specially constructed tunnels for the termites to use to exit the colony. Termites continue to swarm throughout the warm season, although these swarms are less frequent than those during the spring. Colonies normally swarm only once per season, but may swarm multiple times. Later swarms generally do not match the intensity of the first swarm.
Subterranean termites typically swarm during the day, although Formosan termites (a species of subterranean termite) swarm at night. Swarm flights are brief, and because swarmers are not good flyers, they are often transported by prevailing winds. Typically, winged termites do not fly very far; but if the wind is strong, swarmers can be carried great distances before reaching the ground.
If the colony queen dies or if a part of the colony becomes isolated from the primary reproductive, supplementary reproductives may take on the role of the queen. As a colony increases in size, groups of foragers often form satellite colonies or areas of concentrated activities. Dramatic weather events like floods and soil disruption due to construction can separate termites from nest mates in the soil. When groups become physically separated from the rest of the colony and their queen, supplementary reproductives are produced in the isolated group to help establish a new colony.
While we know the majority of new subterranean termite colonies are formed by swarmers, we do not yet know how often budding is used to form new colonies. But because the flight of winged termites is more visible to homeowners, swarming will most likely remain the most well-known process of developing new subterranean termite colonies.