GENERAL TERMITE INFORMATION
TERMITE FACTS & INFORMATION
Termites belong to the insect order Isoptera, an ancient insect group that dates back more than 100 million years. The Latin name Isoptera means “equal wing” and refers to the fact that the front set of wings on a reproductive termite is similar in size and shape to the hind set.
Although many people think termites have only negative impacts, in nature they make many positive contributions to the world’s ecosystems. Their greatest contribution is the role they play in recycling wood and plant material. Their tunneling efforts also help to ensure that soils are porous, contain nutrients, and are healthy enough to support plant growth. Termites are very important in the Sahara Desert where their activity helps to reclaim soils damaged by drying heat and wind and the overgrazing by livestock.
Termites become a problem when they consume structural lumber. Each year thousands of housing units in the United States require treatment for the control of termites. Termites may also damage utility poles and other wooden structures. Termite pests in California include drywood, dampwood, and subterranean species. These pests cause serious damage to wooden structures and posts and may also attack stored food, books, and household furniture.
TYPES OF TERMITES
There are about 2,500 known termite species found throughout the world. However, in the U.S., there are about 50 different species of termites. Only 20 of these species are categorized as "structural pests" meaning these types of termite are known to infest and consume structures made with wood construction. These termites fall into one of the following main termite categories:
TERMITE LIFE CYCLE
The life cycle of the termite begins with a mating flight, wherein swarming winged reproductive males and females leave established colonies and procreate. After fertilization, winged termites land and shed their wings, going on to form new colonies. These insects then become the king or queen termites of their newly established colonies. The queen and king termites are at the center of the termite life cycle and are responsible for reproduction.
After the fertilized queen lays her eggs, they hatch into pale white larvae. Eggs hatch into larvae and molt to develop into workers, soldiers, and primary or secondary reproductives.
A nymph is a young termite that is going through molts, a process of shedding its exoskeleton, to become a reproductive. First, a termite develops a soft exoskeleton under its current, hard exoskeleton. Then, once the termite has reached maturity, its outermost skeleton splits open, and the new exoskeleton enlarges and hardens. This molting process continues throughout a termite’s life cycle based on the colony’s needs.
LIFE CYCLE STAGES
Over the course of several molts, these larvae grow to assume a role in one of the three termite colony castes: workers, soldiers, and reproductive termites, also known as alates.
Each caste has a distinctly different physical appearance. Workers are responsible for constructing tunnels and chambers as well as feeding and grooming other termite castes. Soldier termites are yellow-brown in color, with dramatically enlarged heads and often large mandibles. These are useful in combat, but render warriors incapable of feeding themselves. The reproductive alates are darker in color and are born with two pairs of wings.
Although it is not clear how larvae are relegated to a certain caste, some research has indicated that maturity and the overall needs of the colony may dictate caste assignment. In fact, research has shown that castes in the termite life cycle are not rigidly set, as termites belonging to one caste may develop into another caste if the colony requires it. Thus, a soldier termite may become a worker or a reproductive termite if the colony experiences a shortage of one or the other.
The termite life cycle also includes swarming. Once reproductives become fully mature termites capable of reproducing, they develop wings and functioning eyes. The bodies of these termites, now called alates, also become harder and darker to help the swarming termites withstand exposure to light and less humid air.
Workers and soldiers live approximately one to two years. Queen termites may survive for over a decade under optimal climate conditions.
DIFFERENCES BETWEEN TERMITES AND ANTS
Flying ants and swarming termites are often difficult to tell apart. Termites have relatively straight, beadlike antennae while ants have elbowed antennae. Termites have two pair of wings (front and back) that are of almost equal length. Ants also have two pair of wings but the fore wings are much larger than the hind wings. The abdomen of the termite is broadly joined to the thorax while the abdomen and thorax of the ant are joined by a narrow waist called a petiole.