Rain and ‘flying ants’

Landing zone
Landing zone

We had 23mm of rain between dawn and breakfast time this morning. It made us very happy – we’ve been waiting for ‘real rain’ for months – and it triggered the emergence of swarms of what we used to call ‘flying ants’.

They are not ants at all but termites. The confusion of common names runs deep – ‘white ants’ are termites too – but termites and ants are not closely related. In fact, termites are closer to cockroaches, and ants to bees, than they are to each other. What they do have in common is a colonial, often subterranean, lifestyle.

termite nest and termite
A small nest at the foot of the gum tree, with one winged termite beginning to crawl up to a launching place

Rain after a long dry spell triggers the emergence of swarms of winged (‘alate’) mating adults. If they are very lucky, they will meet and breed with adults from nearby colonies and set up new homes underground. More often, they will fail at one of these three steps and become food for the birds: mortality rates are very high.

winged and wingless flying ants
Winged (alate) and wingless (dealate) termites

They pair off like this as quickly as they can on landing but may not mate until they find a suitable location for a new colony. When and if that occurs, they go underground and stay there for the rest of their lives.

termite in raindrop
Caught: the surface tension of a raindrop is enough to imprison an alate

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