Why Termites Swarm (And 6 Ways To Stop Them)

termites in old wood

There’s not too many other words that strike fear and dread into a homeowner’s heart like the word “termites.” These tiny pests can cause significant damage to a house and wallet. When you see a termite swarm (either outside or inside your house), immediate action is warranted.

When termite colonies get too big to sustain their numbers, adult termites will leave in a group called a swarm. Male and female termites will grow two pairs of wings and establish new nests. Swarming usually only happens once a year, but different species will swarm at different times of the year.

Termites can swarm during the spring, summer, or fall depending on the species and if the colony is ready to disperse. If you happen to see winged termites (either outside or inside) you should do a thorough inspection and take preventative steps to prevent or get rid of them.

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Important Things To Know About Termites

In the forests where they typically live, termites are actually very beneficial to the environment. They help to break down fallen and dead trees and shrubs. Termite tunnels help to aerate the soil, and the insects themselves are a food source for many predators.

According to University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources, termites rarely harm healthy trees— they prefer dead or decaying wood. The reason they get into our houses so readily is because the wood used to build them is no longer living. Unfortunately, they can’t tell the difference between naturally decaying trees and the wood used to build our houses.

If termites don’t live in healthy wood, where can you find them? Check out our piece on the places termites live and why they never sleep.

Termites Are Blind

Termites live most of their lives in dark, black, lightless tunnels. Because of this adaptation, they don’t have the need for eyes. But not all termites are blind— the swarmers develop sight because they need to see mates and find a new home.

Background image Traces of wood that is eaten by termites

They get around by leaving behind pheromone markers. Termites use these markers to figure out where they are going.

This is also why you will see termites come out at night.

Termites Are Long-Lived

Mating pairs of king and queen termites can live for over a decade. That can add years of house damage if they get into your home. The worker class of termites even live for several years.

Compared to honeybees, termites have exceptionally long lives. Honeybee queens only live for about a year or two, and the workers can last only about 15 to 40 days before they expire.

They Are Social Insects

Much like ants and bees, termites have a complex social structure. Each group of termites in the colony has certain jobs and responsibilities. Though they are very similar to ants, they are actually more closely related to cockroaches.

How To Recognize A Termite Swarm

winged termites on white background

Many insects swarm, but what exactly is a termite swarm?

When a termite colony reaches a certain point, some of the inhabitants grow wings and fly off in search of less crowded living conditions.

When this group of winged termites takes flight, this is considered a swarm.

What’s The Difference Between Ant And Termite Swarms?

Ants swarm the same way termites do. It’s a part of mating and colony expansion! The swarms even look similar, and in some instances, they get mistaken for each other.

However, one insect can cause terrible damage to your house, while the other is more of a nuisance than anything.

How do you tell the difference between them? Ants and termites might resemble each other, especially during their swarms, but they are not in fact related to each other. Termites are more closely related to cockroaches, while ants have more in common with wasps.

Let’s take a closer look at each one so you can tell if that flying pest in or around your house is a termite or a swarming ant.

How Do I know If A Termite Is Swarming?

One of the most distinguishing traits of a swarming termite is its long wings. When they are ready to leave the nest, the mating males and females grow long, double pairs of wings that are of equal length. The color of the wings can be clear, white, or tan.

You can also look at their antennae if you want to get that close. Don’t worry, termites can’t hurt you, even though they can chew through wood. A termite’s antennae are short and straight, or they may have a slight curve to them.

Termite bodies also differ from ants. Swarming termites have thick abdomens with no discernible difference in waist size. They can be either brown or black.

What Does A Swarming Ant Look Like?

Unlike termites, ants can pack a sting if they feel threatened or are harmed in any way. Most times the stings don’t hurt much, but that all depends on the species.

The velvet ant (which is really a species of wingless wasp) can pack a sting some consider the worst sting in the US, while the bullet ant of South America has a sting so painful that people say they feel like they have been shot.

Either way, it’s not advisable to handle any kind of ant. While they don’t actively seek to hurt us, they can easily sting to defend themselves. With that out of the way, let’s get into the swarming ant description.

Swarming ants also have two pairs of wings, but they aren’t as long as termite wings. Also, the pairs are different lengths. The first pair is slightly longer than the second pair.

Ant antennae have prominent bends in them, almost giving them the appearance of tiny horns. The last difference between the two is the waist. Ants have a narrow waist, and you can clearly see three distinct body sections.

3 Signs That You Have Termite Swarms

Now that you know what termites look like, let’s see what other signs there are of an infestation. There can be signs of an infestation inside your house or they could have come from outside.

If you have a swarm inside your house, then you already have a hidden infestation, and you may have to call a professional to treat them.

According to the North Carolina State Extension, if most of the flying termites were found outside, then the infestation most likely came from an underground nest.

Basically, they could be feeding off an old tree stump or landscape timbers. If you have found swarmers inside your house, then you most likely have an infestation growing in your house.

Here’s more info about how termites spread from house to house.

1. Mysterious Discarded Wings

Termites spend most of their lives in dark tunnels and away from the light, but when they swarm they will finally seek out the sun.

If you have a swarm inside your house, you’ll probably see the flying insects flying or crawling around a window. You may even see a bunch of discarded wings and bug poop called frass on the window sill.

Termites don’t fly well and will often abandon their wings when they hit an obstacle. Once free from the burden of ungainly wings they will crawl to their destination.

Time is of the essence here for the termites, because if they don’t get into a humid hole, they will shrivel up in a few hours.

You may also see tiny holes in wood trim, or walls where the swarming termites have emerged. Unfortunately, where you see the evidence of swarming termites, there are still hundreds or even thousands of termites still hidden and staying behind.

2. Crusty Mud Tubes

Sometimes you may see branching smears of mud along your walls—especially outside—that look like veins or a leafless tree.

These are called mud tubes and termites use them to travel from one place to another without getting dried out in the sun.

When termites get exposed to the sun and bright light outdoors, they will dehydrate quickly. To keep from meeting their demise like a Hollywood vampire, termites use their saliva to create the narrow tunnels they can hide in.

Mud tubes are a sure sign you have termites either getting into your house or moving away from it.

3. Droppings And Soft Wood

While some termites don’t care where they leave their sawdust-looking droppings, other species like subterranean termites are more discrete with their frass.

These termites keep their droppings inside their tunnels and inside the damaged wood, so you’re less likely to see their evidence.

Another way to tell if you have termites is to use a screwdriver and tap the wood. Wood that has significant termite damage will be soft. It may make a hollow sound when tapped, or the screwdriver could sink into the wood.

What To Do When You Find Termites Swarming

Termites don’t only live in our homes, but they live in the ground, and areas of rotting wood, such as a dead tree or rotting stump. They will still swarm from these locations when the colony has grown too large.

The swarms only last about 30 to 40 minutes long and typically on cloudy days after a soaking rain. The soft ground is easier to dig through to make a new colony than hard, dry, compacted soil.

Still, if you see swarming termites outside, that only means that there is a strong colony somewhere nearby. If you don’t have the pests inside your house now, it’s only a matter of time before they get in.

Though calling a professional termite company might be the best option to combat them, there are a few things you can do yourself.

1. Do A Thorough Home Inspection

Search around and through your house to see if there already is an infestation of termites. They can live inside your house for several years before you notice any sign of damage from termites.

Be sure to look closely at any place wood touches the ground, including your crawlspace, basement, or cellar if you have one. You might want to get a professional for this part since they don’t mind crawling around under your house and can find things that most homeowners could easily miss.

2. Pressure Treat Wood When Building

Anytime you’re building wood structures outside, be sure to get pressure-treated lumber. This wood is treated to resist not only rot but insects like termites. It will last longer than non-treated wood outdoors, whether you paint it or not.

3. Repair Leaks And Clogged Gutters

One thing that attracts termites is moisture. Any standing puddles or soggy areas around your house could be beckoning these wood-eating pests to your domain. Making sure gutters are clean and operating properly is a good way to prevent wet areas around your house.

Look for any leaks from hoses, or drains as well. Get these fixed as soon as possible if you notice leaks.

Also, if there are any low lying areas where rainwater accumulates, you should either look into installing a French drain or grade the area to make sure all water runs away from your house.

4. Put Down lots Of Mulch

Mulch, especially thick mounds that lay directly against your house can attract or hide termites and many other bugs that want to get into your house. Sure a nice mulched flower bed looks great and adds dynamic curb appeal, but the moisture often attracts insects.

One way to keep many of the bad bugs out is to mulch with rocks or other inorganic material directly around your house. Raking wood mulch away from your foundation about a foot or two and replacing it with pea gravel, crushed marble, or even shredded rubber will deter many bugs.

5. Be Sure To Fill In Cracks In Your Home

Bugs and insects will fit through the tiniest of cracks and crevices. Go along your house and carefully search for these entrance points and fill them with silicone, caulk, or expanding foam. This will go a long way in preventing pests.

GREAT STUFF Big Gap Filler Insulating Foam Sealant is great for larger gaps that may be around windows, doors, or areas where plumbing or wires enter or exit your house. Just insert the tube into the gap and spray a little foam inside and watch it expand while closing access to your house.

6. Store Firewood Away From The House

Background termite nests are traces of wood that is eaten by termites

Whether you heat your house with wood or only use it occasionally for the ambiance, you should always store firewood away from any structures, especially your home.

Storing it off the ground is also advised to keep many wood-eating insects out of your heat source.

While you are moving your firewood and checking for small cracks, go ahead and remove any debris around your house or in your yard. If there are any rotting stumps or declining bushes, clean them out. These items really attract termites and other wood-eating insects.

How Often Do Termites Swarm?

When a new colony of termites starts, they can spend years getting established. Some colonies will continue to grow if the food source is plentiful for five years or more before they start to swarm. Once they reach the size where they need to move out, termites will typically only swarm once a year.

What time of year they swarm depends on the type of termites. (Yes, there are more than one type and species of these wood chewing property destroyers.)

There are believed to be over 2000 different species, and they all eat wood and cellulose.

In the United States, there are many species of termites, but only about three types. These are the drywood termites, dampwood, and subterranean termites.

When Do Dampwood Termites Swarm?

Dampwood termites—as their name suggests—need a lot of moisture to survive. These termites are least likely to infest your home unless you have a long lasting and consistent leak somewhere that keeps wood damp.

These are usually the largest of the termite families and have to live where there is plenty of damp soil and free water. They typically infest downed trees and logs that stay consistently wet from the ground.

If you find dampwood termites in your home, you should have a plumber inspect for sources of a leak. Because these insects are so dependent on moist wood, their presence in your structures could indicate a constant leak somewhere.

Dampwood termites swarm in summer and can swarm several times in one season.

They typically swarm during the daylight hours, but they can also swarm at night. Dampwood termite swarmers are the strongest fliers and are attracted to lights. You’re more likely to see them around porch lights at night.

When Do Drywood Termites Swarm?

Drywood termites are one of the types you and I need to worry about because they—as their name implies—can infiltrate and damage structurally sound, dry wood.

Not only will they get into buildings and homes, but drywood termites can tunnel into utility poles, decks, furniture, and stored lumber such as firewood.

Drywood termites live most of their lives in above ground wood, so you won’t find them in wood that connects to the soil.

These types of termites don’t have huge numbers in their colonies, so you may not see signs of their swarms or infestation for a long time. One of the tell-tale signs you have drywood termites is by their droppings.

Signs Of Drywood Termites

If you see small piles of droppings on the floor or window sills, this could be your first indication of these termites. When their fecal pellets get in the way, these termites will push them out of tiny holes.

Another indication could be a few discarded wings along window sills. These termites don’t have huge swarms; their swarming numbers rarely reach more than 100 per swarm.

If you do happen to see either of these signs though, you should call a pest control professional, because these termites can be quite difficult to treat effectively.

Drywood termites swarm on cloudy, cooler days in the late summer and early fall.

When Do Subterranean Termites Swarm?

The subterranean termite is usually the termite that infects houses. In forests away from manmade structures, these termites live in the soil and feed on fallen trees, old tree stumps, or other wood that sits on the ground. These termite colonies can number in the hundreds of thousands.

Because of the huge numbers associated with subterranean termites, these insects are often the most destructive types of wood eating bugs. Another trait that makes these termites so eager to invade houses is that they like to eat wood that is in contact with the ground. Since many houses are built very low, or directly onto the ground, subterranean termites have easy access to houses.

Subterranean termites tend to release their swarms into the air in the spring. They will often wait for warm, clear days after a soaking rain. This way the soil and wood they want to eat is soft and damp.

Signs Of Subterranean Termites

There are several signs to look out for when searching for subterranean termites in your house. These can include, but are not limited to:

  • Mud tubes. These termites use these tubes to protect themselves as they travel above ground.
  • Kick-out tubes. If you see small holes, often covered by a black, powdery substance, you could have subterranean termites. Another indicator is the presence of a powdery, wood-colored frass on the ground below the kick-out tubes.
  • Swarmers. These may be the first indication you have subterranean termites. They will swarm in great numbers, and inside your house, you could end up with thousands of these flying termites in your rooms.

What To Do When You Find Termites In Your House

House stairs that were bitten by termites. The wood was broken because it was destroyed by termites.

Often the best option for homeowners when they find out they have termites in or around their house is to call a professional. They can come up with a multi-structured system to get rid of them.

Fighting termites isn’t easy and requires many different steps. You have to get the termites in the ground by setting out bait stations along their tunnels. Then you have to get all the termites in your house or around it.

Once those are all taken care of, you may need to contact a contractor that can repair the damage. If termites are caught early, they may not have done enough damage to warrant any repairs, but if they have been unnoticed for several years, some repairs will most likely need to be completed.

If you’re planning on taking on the termites yourself, you can start with Spectracide Terminate Termite Stakes. These are bait stations that will help to get rid of termites in the ground, and possibly prevent them from getting to your house.

For termites inside your house, you’ll have to find other options that will take care of the termites in your walls and structure. You may have to open up walls to get to all of them though. It can be a daunting task and may be best left to professionals.

What Should I Do When I find Termites Inside?

Termite swarms don’t typically last more than an hour or two, so most of us will only see the aftermath, especially if we work during the day. If you notice the aftermath of a termite swarm, all you can do is clean up the discarded wings and look for where they emerged from.

The next step is to call a pest control company to do a thorough inspection and come up with a treatment plan.

If you’re unlucky enough to be present during a termite swarm, the best thing to do is close the door and seal up the exit. Termites won’t survive long trapped inside the room and will soon reach their end.

The best thing to do is prevent them from escaping and creating another colony.

After you seal up the room, call a termite exterminator, because if you have a swarm inside your house, you’ve had termites living inside your house for several years and the damage could be significant.

That’s A Wrap!

Termites swarm to keep the colony strong and to start new colonies. When their numbers reach a critical level they will send out new male and female termites that have grown wings so they can set up new homes.

Sometimes they will swarm outside, sometimes you may find them inside your home. Termites can go for a long time without being noticed, so as soon as you see swarming termites, call a professional to take care of them for you.

References

Lewis, Vernard, and Brian Forschler. “Management of drywood termites: past practices, present situation and future prospects.” Urban insect pests: sustainable management strategies (2014): 130-153.

Castle, G. B. “The damp-wood termites of western United States, genus Zootermopsis (for-merly Termopsis).” Termites and termite control (1934): 273-310.

Su, Nan-Yao. “Development of baits for population management of subterranean termites.” Annual Review of Entomology 64 (2019): 115-130.


Traniello, James FA, and Reinhard H. Leuthold. “Behavior and ecology of foraging in termites.” Termites: evolution, sociality, symbioses, ecology. Springer, Dordrecht, 2000. 141-168. https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-94-017-3223-9_7

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