My neighborhood walk in Colorado Springs the other day, March 25, was like strolling through living confetti at some points. All the local termite colonies were launching swarms of winged males and potential queens (alates as scientists call them). The frail creatures were not ignored by other animals, either, especially ants. Closer inspection of the swarms revealed three species of ants preying on them.
Termite swarms are not an indication of the impending collapse of your home or any other wooden structure. Yet, that is the first thought that enters the mind of the average person witnessing the spectacle. Such is the power of advertising for pest control companies. Now, a termite swarm inside your home should probably be cause for alarm. Outdoors, subterranean termites like these Reticulitermes sp. are vital to the recycling of decaying wood. They nest in the soil, as their common name suggests, and forage for wood and other dry cellulose in contact with the soil.
The synchronous nature of termite swarms is a marvel. All colonies in a given area need to liberate their reproductive castes at the same time in order to prevent inbreeding, but I have no idea how they "decide" when to do this. The day before we had snow and high winds. The alates issue from the tiniest of cracks in the soil, like toothpaste from the tube, the better to avoid easy detection. Eventually, enough of the insects appear that their gauzy wings reflect the sun and give away their presence. Soldier termites, and workers, too, escort them out and see them off.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of winged termites begin filling the air. Few will survive the alert eyes and hungry mouths of birds, lizards, and other predators. The early season timing of swarms may in fact be tuned to precede the emergence of reptiles and the arrival of migrant birds. Ants, on the other hand, are already on the prowl.
Both ants and termites are social insects, so it is fitting they would be deadly enemies and, one would think, well-matched foes. Watching one swarm happen on the edge of a driveway, I began noticing the appearance of worker ants, Formica sp., crossing the driveway. Eventually I saw one toting a winged termite back to the nest. The ant's nest. More ants followed suit.
Turning my attention back to where the termites were emerging, I noticed something even more frightening. Tiny "pavement ants," Tetramorium sp., were killing both alates and worker termites right at the termite nest opening. Whereas Formica ants are a bit larger than the termites, the pavement ants were smaller than their prey. How they avoided the menacing jaws of the soldier termites confounds me.
Just up the street I noticed heavy ant activity originating at the base of a brick-and-mortar mailbox pillar. These were Formica pallidefulva ants, but appeared larger than the other ones I saw previously. It soon became apparent that they were also taking part in the Great Termite Massacre of 2017. Most of them were carrying wingless alates, though.
Alate termites, once paired, shed their wings easily. Both pairs of wings have a weak spot that allows the termites to break them off so they can quickly seek cover. The male ("king") termite follows on the heels of his mate (queen) as they form a two-car train in search of a potential nest site. They must do so quickly if they are to avoid the marauding ants.
Whether the honey pot ants were taking dealate (wingless reproductives) termites, or just seizing winged individuals and breaking off their wings, remains a mystery. They are certainly easier to transport without those cumbersome wings.
As I turned the corner to go home, I caught sight of yet another ant, possibly Formica podzolica. It, too, was carrying a defeated termite. The ant seemed at least somewhat disoriented, and I eventually lost track of it in the thick grass at the edge of the curb.
So, termites are both integral to keeping soils fertile with their decomposition activities, and also a bounty for many other organisms that depend on them for food when other insect life is less plentiful. Ants are the lion kings and wolf packs of the macroscopic landscape, keeping termites and other insects from overrunning the planet. The ants are not immune, though, and in my next post we see them on the other end of the predator-prey equation.
Note: Special thanks to James C. Trager for identification of the ant species.