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The world’s 3,000 or so documented termite species are divided into three groups based on differing habitat requirements. These three groups are known as subterranean, drywood and dampwood termites, and many termite species belonging to each of these groups can be found in the US. Subterranean termites are responsible for inflicting at least 80 percent of all termite-related structural damages in the US annually, and unlike drywood and dampwood termites, subterranean termites live in colonies located below the ground.

Reticulitermes flavipes is the most destructive termite pest in the US, and this species is abundant in Massachusetts. R. flavipes is commonly known as the “eastern subterranean termite,” and their colonies grow to contain between 50,000 and as many as 2 million individuals. Most of these individual termites are workers that leave the original nest to forage and establish secondary nesting sites. Soldiers account for around 2 percent of individuals within an eastern subterranean termite colony, and they protect workers from predatory attacks during foraging expeditions, but only workers infest wood, including structural wood in homes. New colonies are established by winged alates that take flight from mature colonies every year between April and May in Massachusetts. These annual flights are commonly referred to as “mating swarms,” and alates that survive long enough to find a mate and reproduce become the queen and king of a new colony.

Alates are weak flyers, and most of them die before getting a chance to secure a mate, and the very few alates that do find a mate may not survive to create a new colony. In order to attract male suitors, female alates raise their abdomen upwards into a calling position while simultaneously releasing a sex pheromone. Once a male alate begins moving toward a female alate, the two begin to seek out a nesting site in soil that is moist enough to support a growing colony. Once an ideal nesting site is located, the female and male alates excavate soil to create a small ground chamber where the two can mate. Mating occurs within hours or weeks following the pairing of male and female alates, but nesting alates are sometimes spotted and consumed by predators like bugs, birds and other animals before they get a chance to reproduce. In some cases, the first eggs produced in a nest are unable to survive due to a lack of environmental nourishment. In any case, all subterranean termite colonies are slow to grow, and it takes between four and seven years before a colony is able to produce its own alates.

Have you ever spotted a termite swarm near your home?