There are more than 2500 different types of termites in the world and at least 17 different types of termites in California. However, in California, there are three distinct groups that are important to understand: Dampwood (very limited in their distribution), Drywood and Subterranean Termites.
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.
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.