Woodside hills are alive with, yikes, are these termites?


DEAR JOHANNA: We were up in the hills near Woodside and saw several schools of small flying insects appearing to emerge from the earth.

One observer thought it might be western subterranean termites. In any case, the Chickadees and Townsends Warblers noticed.

Your thoughts on what we saw?

Matt Rode, Woodside

LOVE MATT: They were subterranean termites, and the birds were delighted to see them.

The underground termites (Reticulitermes) are the most common in California and also the most destructive.

They are much smaller than two other types of termites in California – wetwood and drywood termites – but they exist in much greater numbers. Colonies can contain hundreds of thousands of them.

Because they nest underground, we often don’t see them, but on warm, sunny days after autumn or spring rains, swarms of “reproductive materials”, also known as Alates, appear in masses.

You can also see soldiers and workers among the reproductive forces, but they don’t have wings. The sole purpose of the reproductive organs, as the name suggests, is to mate and form new colonies. Good news for us – but bad news for termites – most of them are devoured by birds, lizards and ants.

A colony arises when the sexually mature male and female allies show up and establish a love affair. They build a small underground chamber that they then seal off. The new king and queen, and the queen starts producing eggs.

Termites live longer than we might think. You certainly couldn’t compete with Queen Elizabeth II on longevity, but the kings and queens can live 10 years or more, and individual workers could live for several years.

DEAR JOHANNA: I have never seen so many hummingbirds in my garden as this late in the year. I don’t have feed troughs, but I have flowers that bloom all year round. They must be so cold, however.

You sit in my trees and fly a few meters and then come back on land. Are they doing this to keep warm? Is there any kind of shelter I could offer them so they don’t get so cold?

Ellen Seskin, Richmond

DEAR ELLEN: Hummingbirds may look frail and delicate, but they are tough little buzzards. They are able to weather much colder winters than in the Bay Area with snow, ice and freezing temperatures.

They do this in a number of ways. First, they are just hardy and can survive harsh winters as long as they have something to eat. Hummingbirds and other birds don’t fly south to avoid the cold winters. They migrate in part because the food supply is better in warmer areas.

When they get too cold, hummingbirds can go into brief periods of a type of hibernation known as freeze. They slow their heart rate, lower their body temperature, and fall asleep deeply to conserve their energy.

There really isn’t anything you have to do other than keep growing the plants you enjoy. For those who have feeders, when a frost is forecast, bring feeders in and set them out first thing in the morning to keep the nectar from freezing.

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