Every year in the US, subterranean termites inflict structural damage to homes and buildings that cost property owners several billion dollars to repair. The most destructive termite species in the country is commonly known as the eastern subterranean termite (Reticulitermes flavipes), and this species is the only termite pest that infests structures in Massachusetts. Like all subterranean termites, eastern subterranean termites (EST) live in colonies located within moist ground soil, and these colonies are made up of three primary social castes known as workers, soldiers, and the royal pair (queen and king).

Every year from April to June in Massachusetts, eastern subterranean termite swarmers (alates) emerge from existing colonies following bouts of rainfall in order to mate and initiate a new colony within a very small and shallow ground burrow. This initial ground burrow represents the earliest stage of colony formation, and it’s excavated immediately after alates shed their wings and before the pair begin mating. The vast majority of alates within a termite swarm die before locating a mate, but the few alates that successfully secure a mate and survive long enough to excavate a ground burrow will continue to live for a period of 15 to 30 years as the founding queen and king of the colony.

Like termites, ant species also live within colonies that produce reproductive alates that establish new colonies by swarming during the spring and summer seasons. However, unlike termites, female ant alates mate with a male just long enough to build up a base population within the new colony. Once the male alate outlives his usefulness as a colony co-founder, he dies, while the female goes on to preside over the new colony as the queen, and sole royal. This makes termites unique for being the only social insects that see a monogamous royal couple serve as colony founders, or “primary reproductives.”

Once a colony reaches maturity after a period lasting between three and five years, queens begin producing between 1,000 and 2,000 eggs per day, resulting in rapid colony growth. Once colonies grow to contain hundreds of thousands or millions of individuals, the reproductive rate of a single queen is no longer sufficient to meet the demands of the rapidly growing colony. When this occurs, queens compensate for their inadequate egg production by facilitating the production of  several “secondary reproductives.”

Secondary reproductives produce far fewer offspring per day than the queen, but several secondary reproductives are produced to strike a balance. Secondary reproductives often accompany workers during foraging expeditions, and occasionally, foraging workers establish “satellite nests” around the original nest. Both workers and secondary reproductives inhabit satellite nests, and it is not uncommon for satellite nests to lose contact with the original nest. When this occurs, the isolated satellite nest begins to function much like an entirely new colony where secondary reproductives fill the role of the queen. This form of colony formation is known as “budding,” and it is a normal occurrence in extremely large multi-nest colony networks.

Have you ever found dead alates on your lawn?