Do Termites Have Wings? Uncovering the Truth About Flying Insects

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Termites are often mistaken for ants, but these insects have some distinct features that separate them from their lookalikes. One crucial difference is that termites actually have wings. While not all termites possess wings, certain members within a termite colony do, such as the reproductive caste known as alates.

The presence of wings on termites serves a specific purpose in their life cycle. Alates use their wings during the swarming or mating season, allowing them to disperse and establish new colonies. After successfully landing at their new destination, these reproductive termites break off their wings, indicating they have found a suitable location to start a new family of wood-digesting insects. This unique aspect of their anatomy differentiates them from ants, who have distinct body structures, such as a pinched waist and bent antennae.

Understanding Winged Termites

Termite Types

Termites can be categorized into three types:

  • Subterranean termites
  • Drywood termites
  • Dampwood termites

Each type has its own distinct characteristics, including habitat preferences and impact on structures. For example, subterranean termites generally cause more damage to buildings, whereas dampwood termites typically infest damp or decaying wood.

Castes

In termite colonies, there are three main castes:

  • Workers: These are typically wingless, blind, and responsible for feeding the colony, maintaining tunnels, and caring for the queen.
  • Soldiers: Also wingless, these termites protect the colony from predators using their large mandibles.
  • Reproductives: These termites are the winged individuals, called alates or swarmers. Their main role is to form new colonies, which occurs during swarming events.

Winged Termites (Alates)

Winged termite alates are reproductive termites tasked with starting new colonies. Their wings are similar in size and shape, usually pale and translucent. When environmental conditions are favorable, alates swarm from the existing colony to mate and establish new colonies. Swarming termites may be mistaken for flying ants.

Winged termite characteristics:

  • Straight, beaded antennae
  • Both pairs of wings of similar length
  • No distinct waist

Termite Swarming and Swarmers

Termite swarmers (alates) play a crucial role in expanding termite populations. When favorable conditions occur, like warm temperatures and humidity, alates swarm, mate, and shed their wings to form new colonies. Noticing termite swarmers in your home can indicate a termite infestation nearby.

Comparison Table: Termites and Ants

Termites Ants
Straight antennae Elbowed antennae
Two pairs of equal-length wings Front wings longer than hind wings
No distinct waist Distinct “wasp-waist”
Pale, translucent wings Tinted brown wings
Cream-colored soldiers with dark jaws Black, brown, or reddish bodies

Distinguishing Termites from Ants

Physical Differences

Termites and ants may both have wings, but they have distinct physical features that set them apart. Here are some notable differences between the two insects.

Ants:

  • Elbowed antennae
  • Pinched or “wasp-waist”
  • Front wings longer than hind wings, tinted brown
  • Body color: black, brown, or reddish

Termites:

  • Straight antennae
  • Tube-like body, no waist constriction
  • Front and hind wings similar in shape and equal in length, pale, translucent
  • Body color: typically dark brown

Comparing winged ants and termites:

Feature Ants Termites
Antennae Elbowed Straight
Waist Pinched (“wasp-waist”) Uniform (tube-like body)
Wing length Front > hind Front = hind
Wing color Tinted brown Pale, translucent
Body color Black, brown, or reddish Dark brown

For example, if you spot an insect with straight antennae, a uniform body, and wings of equal length, it is likely a termite. On the other hand, if it has a pinched waist, elbowed antennae, and its front wings are longer than its hind wings, it is most likely an ant.

Termite Life Cycle and Swarming Behavior

Swarming Process

Swarming termites are adult reproductive members of a termite colony. They typically swarm during the daytime, frequently in spring, and often after a rainstorm 1. The process of swarming helps termites find mates and start new colonies. Features of termite swarms include:

  • Occurring during specific times of the year
  • Flying away from the main colony
  • Shedding their wings after landing

Mating and Reproduction

Termite mating involves a queen and a king who lead the termite colony. Together, they produce eggs. The termite life cycle consists of several stages1:

  1. Egg: A queen lays eggs, which hatch into larvae.
  2. Larva: The larvae undergo several molting stages before reaching adulthood.
  3. Adult: Once termites become adults, they may become workers, soldiers, or reproductive swarmers.

The queen can live up to several years and continue to lay eggs throughout her lifespan. Meanwhile, male termites, also known as kings, help the queen with reproduction.

Comparison Table

Feature Termites Ants
Mating Queen and king mate to produce eggs1 Queen and male ants mate to produce eggs2
Swarming Spring, usually after rain1 Spring or summer, typically on warm days2
Lifespan Queen can live up to several years2 Queen ants can live for years, depending on species2
Wings Reproductive adult termites have wings to swarm1 Winged reproductive adult ants3

Signs of a Termite Infestation

Mud Tubes

Termites create mud tubes as protective tunnels. These tunnels help termites travel from their colony to their food source. You may find them around the foundation of a building, in crawl spaces, or on walls. They are made from soil and termite droppings and are usually around the width of a pencil.

Termite Droppings

Termites leave behind droppings, also known as frass. These droppings are pellet-shaped and can vary in color. You may find them near infested wood or close to termite mud tubes. This is a sign of an active termite infestation.

Structural Damage

Termites can cause structural damage to wooden structures. This damage may include hollowed-out wood, chipped paint, or even tunnels through cardboard or paper. For example, termites may damage wooden support beams in a building or even chew through furniture.

Key Differences Between Mud Tubes and Termite Droppings:

  • Mud tubes are made of soil and termite droppings, provide a protected pathway between colony and food source
  • Termite droppings are pellet-shaped, a sign of active infestation, found close to mud tubes or infested wood

Characteristics of Structural Damage:

  • Hollowed-out wood
  • Chipped paint
  • Tunnels in cardboard or paper

Pros of Identifying Termite Infestation Early:

  • Prevents extensive structural damage
  • Avoids costly repairs
  • Protects property value

Cons of Neglecting Termite Infestation Signs:

  • Worsening structural damage
  • Increased repair costs
  • Decreased property value

To summarize, signs of termite infestation include the presence of mud tubes, termite droppings, and structural damage. By identifying these signs early, you can prevent the infestation from worsening and avoid costly repairs.

Preventing

Footnotes

  1. Termite Swarmers – What Do They Mean for You? | NC State Extension 2 3 4 5

  2. Ants and Termites: How to Tell the Difference 2 3 4

  3. Termites: How to Identify and Control Them | US EPA

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about these insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – Flying Termite

 

Bug with a red head and wings
September 19, 2009
These bugs were found near the window on a 90 degree day in Los Angeles. There were several of them in the window sill and up top towards the top of the window frame.
andrew
San Gabriel, CA

Flying Termite
Flying Termite

Hi Andrew,
This is a reproductive flying Termite.  We are uncertain of the species and one of our readers may be able to provide that information.  When conditions are right, often on a warm sunny day after a rain, Termites will swarm in their nuptial flight in preparation for mating and starting new colonies.  After mating, the Termites shed their wings and often homemakers will discover the shed wings near the points of entry for the new colony.

Letter 2 – Flying Termite: Nuptial Flight

 

WInged Ant-Like Insect
Sun, Apr 12, 2009 at 12:20 PM
This morning (April12) I was planting my garden when I saw three our four small areas in my backyard covered in hundreds of winged insects that looked exactly like black queen ants, and even had wings. They were about a centimeter (or maybe a little less) in length and seemed to be coming from the ground but I couldn’t tell exactly from where. Slowly the clumps of insects would fly into the air. What I am pretty sure about is that they’re not ants, because I don’t think this many winged ants all of a sudden come out of the Earth and gather the way I witnessed. Do you know what they are?
G. Spieler
Birmingham, AL, USA

Flying Termite
Flying Termite

Dear G.,
This is a Winged Termite, either a male or female reproductive individual.  When conditions are right, the future kings and queens leave the subterranean nest and embark on their nuptial flight.  They will then mate and start a new colony.

Letter 3 – Termites after fatal nuptial flight

 

Winged, fly then drop wings and crawl
June 8, 2009
I live in a mobile home in South Florida. These have been found mostly in a bedroom near a window. they tend to come out around 7 pm or so, I find the wings all over and when I look closer (especially under a blanket) I find the bodies writhing around. I had the same problem same time last year but not as many as this year. I’ve been told they are termites, or “swarming flies” or flying ants.
These I just “caught” and are floating in a bowl of water.
Any help? Thanks!
Lynne
Stuart FL

Winged Termites:  Drowned after nuptial flight
Winged Termites: Drowned after nuptial flight

Dear Lynne,
We are sorry for the delay, but your letter arrived while we were visiting relatives in Ohio and we are just catching up on old mail.  These are in fact reproductive Termites.  King and Queen Termites swarm, usually after a rain, and then shed their wings after mating.  They then try to establish a new colony.  We suspect you have an infestation inside your mobile home and you will continue to get swarms of Termites on their nuptial flight each year when the conditions are right.
This is one of the rare cases where we would recommend a professional exterminator.

Authors

  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

    View all posts
  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

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Tags: Termites

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7 Comments. Leave new

  • We just had a very large snowstorm. The snow on the deck is covered with dead winged termites. I have not noticed any swarming in the past. I see no indication of any of them in the house or basement. Portion of basement closest to deck is un-finished and joices are visible. No indication of any damage. no visible tunnels.
    After the snow melts, I will investigate under deck. Do snow storms cause them to swarm?

    Reply
    • We have never heard of termites swarming in the snow, but this is a most interesting report. We are curious what our readership thinks of this.

      Reply
  • Note. I am located in the Maryland suburbs of Washingtin, DC

    Reply
  • what is the scientific name of this termite?

    Reply
  • I think I have found the flying termites on my carpet in the house. Looks like the picture and I have found two from like two weeks of each other. Is this a sign that my house is infested?

    Reply
  • I just got back to my room and had left my window open but it has a screen on it. Anyways I found these termites all over the floor of my room and my bed. We killed them and also sprayed some raid on the carpet and my bed. Do you think my bed is ruin or infest. Can my bed still be saved?

    Reply

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