Hiking in Redwood Park and Joaquin Miller Park at midday, we looked for mushrooms sprung forth after a day of rain, but found only a few minuscule ones. However, the rain had set off another of nature’s secret rhythms. Once again, sharp-eyed Kieran spotted this activity, even though it was right in the center of the fire trail we were hiking along.
Two holes had opened in the dirt of the trail, and dozens of winged termites were swarming out and fluttering into uncertain flight. These alates — future kings and queens — don’t mate in the air like ants do, rather they just disperse, sometimes only a few meters, other times much farther. Then they break off their own wings and the males and females find each other on the ground, pair up, and set up housekeeping in some tiny crevice or other. Their mortality rate is astonishingly high, with fewer than 1 percent likely to survive. Most end up, like those Homeric heroes, as a feast for birds. We’ve also seen ants teaming up to attack them on the ground.
These were Reticulitermes hesperus, the Western Subterranean Termite, and their sudden emergence from just below our feet shows they live up to their name. These termites mostly eat wild wood, but can be quite destructive in wooden structures.
A few minutes later, breaking open some rotting logs, we found some much larger termites, Zootermopsis angusticollis, or Pacific Dampwood Termites. These don’t damage structures, rather they eat spongy decaying wood, some of which may already have been broken down by fungus. They’re much larger than R. hesperus, and so easier to observe, and they do OK in captivity, making them and their close relative Z. nevadensis (which may even be the same species) some of the most studied termites in the world. So we brought home some of the wood we found them in, as well as one soldier, three larger nymphs, and half a dozen small nymphs, and put ’em all in a big glass jar to observe. We don’t know if they’ll survive, but the nymphs theoretically have the capability of changing into a queen and a king. Unlike ants, which are really a type of wingless wasp, termites are close cousins of cockroaches, and their nests don’t only have a queen. Termite nests have a king and queen who live side by side throughout the life span of the colony.
If you’re wondering what are the least studied termites in the world, it’s the ones that eat grass on the African veldt or other grasslands and make those huge mounds, taller than a person. If you can figure out how to raise them in a laboratory and study them, you’re ready for your Ph.D. in entomology! Patent your special glass walled termite mound and contact your local research university!