Nature Nearby: Close encounters of the buggy kind
By Fred Seitz
Mid-May, I stepped out our front door and was calmly proceeding down the steps, when I realized I was not alone. Indeed, a creepy, crawly swarm was fastidiously climbing up the stairs. While my vision is not quite as good as it used to be, I could see that the visitors were winged, and there was truly a multitude of them systematically approaching.
I said to myself, “[Expletive deleted], I hope these are flying ants, and nothing more sinister!” I asked a knowledgeable neighbor if she knew their identity, but her reply was basically an “Ugh!” followed by an “I’m not sure.”
Recalling a similar marching swarm from years back, I captured a few in a plastic cup and called a nearby exterminator. About a day later, he came and examined the plastic cup prisoners. With a quieter “ugh,” he assuredly pronounced them termites. Sincerely hoping his diagnosis was not totally capitalistic in nature, I enlisted his company’s services, which they implemented a few days later. I keenly hope that they were successful. No additional gate-crashers have, thus far, trespassed on our front steps.
Maryland termites mostly live underground in elaborate tunnels with connecting chambers. The termite indigenous to Maryland is actually called the Eastern subterranean termite (Reticulitermes flavipes).
The winged swarming termites (aka alates) that were approaching my house were probably intent on starting a new colony. The swarmers are the reproducers the colony sends out and were likely investigating stumps and other wood sources in the area. They find wet wood quite attractive. Termites are actually quite beneficial, providing they stay outside; they help convert dead wood into humus, producing good, fertile soil. But inside? Another story:
According to the Maryland Department of Agriculture, termites do more damage to U.S. homes annually than all reported fires, tornadoes, hurricanes and windstorms combined.
Late spring is breeding time for both termites and ants, and both types of insect colonies send out winged reproductives. If you’re outside this month, you could see either one on the move and taking to the air.
If you have better eyesight than mine, you may be able to distinguish between the two with a close inspection. Termites have thick waists, giving their shape uniformity, while ants’ waists are narrow, giving them an hourglass shape. Termites have straight antennae, while ants’ antennae bend sharply, nearly 90 degrees. And termites’ fore and hind wings appear the same size, while the forewings of ant alates — those reproducers that fly — are much larger than their hind ones.
Termites and ants do not get along. Indeed, they can get into some rather nasty conflicts, with ants devouring the termites, and especially the termite larvae. Ants are not always victorious in battle, however, which renders them ineffective termite exterminators for homeowners like me.
And although ants may have a better long-standing public image as industrious (and some good recent PR, courtesy of Marvel comics’ Ant-Man), carpenter ants can do a number on wood. Although they don’t eat it like termites do, they tunnel into it seeking shelter. And ants have foiled more than a few picnics, too. Neither are welcome in my house, although termites are even less welcome.
Much as we may not appreciate termites and ants, especially in our homes, many a bird, spider, snake and lizard enjoy consuming them and are happy to lend a hand in insect control. Even some beetles will join in, feasting on both ants and termites. About a year ago, I tried using a few carnivorous plants to decrease our ant population, but I think these more efficient bug predators do a better job. But if they allow a termite to set foot (or wing) anywhere near my porch, I won’t hesitate to go over their heads — and back to the exterminator.