Termite General Information
How is a colony organized?
Like other hive insects, termites can be classified by caste:
Queens - Unlike many kinds of ants, termites often have more than one queen. There is a primary queen, which is usually the first termite that founded the colony, along with several other secondary queens that also lay eggs and will take over if the primary queen is killed.
Here is a picture of the queen:
King – There is only one king – the male termite that mates with the queen to help found the colony. He plays an important role in the beginning of the colony, helping to raise the younger termites as the queen lays eggs. When the founding king dies, in some species a reproductive will grow into a replacement king.
Soldiers - Soldier termites defend the nest from intruders, usually other insects.
Workers - These termites stay inside the nest, building it, tending to eggs and larva, and gathering food. They are white and often die easily outside the tunnels they have built from exposure to sunlight.
Reproductives (also called Neotenics or Swarmers) – They the ones you most often see – they fly around in swarms attempting to start new nests. They can also become queens if needed. They will fly for short periods, shedding their wings when they have found a new home.
Where do termites locate their colonies?
It depends on the species. Many live in wood, and those are the kind that are most annoying to homeowners. They can also build mounds in the ground (like ants), live in trees or in nests built outside of trees, underground, or on thin poles such as fence posts. It’s just the ones that live in wood that will hurt your house, however. Subterranean termites can build their home adjacent to your house and use it as a food source by tunneling into it.
How are they formed?
Termites form them after a mating flight made by the reproductives. A queen and king found the nest together, digging a small space. The queen will lay eggs, while the king will help care for the young. Gradually more and more workers are added, allowing the colony to grow larger and larger.
How many termites are in a single colony?
It can range from a few hundred to a few million. In Africa and Australia, they can be extremely large, with up to five million termites.
How often should I have one?
Annually. Termites are pretty slow to infest and damage a house, but if you have recently had an infestation, you will want to get your property looked at every 3-4 months for awhile afterwards.
Should I do it myself or get a professional?
Unlike many other pests, termites are something that it is usually not a good idea to try to deal with yourself. They are hard to kill, they often re-infest homes unless treatment is done professionally, and they can infest parts of the home that are difficult to inspect. I would not suggest relying on your own skills, no matter how much of a handyman you are.
How much does it cost?
Part of that is based on the home price, part of that is that pest control companies sometimes give what is called a “Termite Bond” – a guarantee that they will either get rid of any termites if they find any or, in some cases, even pay for repairs.
What if I want to do my own inspection anyway?
That’s not ideal, but you can still look for a few signs of a termite infestation yourself. Here are a few of them:
- Mud-looking material on wooden surfaces – This can often be hard to see, but termites will eat away at the interior of wood in your home. When it breaks or a hole is opened to the outside, they will try to patch it up. They use dirt as well as their own feces to create a substance to patch these holes, and it kind of looks like mud.
- Wings - When termites are swarming, they fly around and ultimately shed their wings. If termites have gotten into your house or near it after a swarm, you will see big piles of wings. Wings can be near your house either because a swarm has come by, or because your house is infested and the swarm came from inside. Here’s a picture of some shed wings I took after a recent termite swarm sent a few into my house:Keep in mind that there are about 40 different species of termites in the U.S., so they may look a little different.
- Actual termites. Termites can be seen either inside the wood, in which case they usually look yellow or white, or outside as swarmers, in which case they look like flying ants. If your house constantly has swarms of termites near it, it is likely that you or someone nearby has a colony in your home.
- Termite tubes. Subterranean termites, which are the kind that cause the vast majority of damage to homes, don’t just live in wood like people think. What they do is burrow underground, like ants, where they get moisture they need to survive. They build their colony next to a source of wood for food, and then burrow from the earth into the wood, going back and forth between each. To connect these earth and wood burrows, they build termite tubes – little tunnels of earth running along your house that let them run back and forth between the two.
- Sawdust. If you see powder that looks kind of like sawdust around your home, that is a common sign of termites.
- Small holes in the surface of the wood.
- Paint bubbles. If the paint is on a wood surface, you may see little bubbles in it from the termites eating the wood underneath.
- Check moist, dark areas. If you want to inspect your home for termites, you can’t just wander around the outside of it. Termites want a place where they can get both moisture and food. Look in any crawl spaces or areas under your house, any attics, your basement, any place you have in your house where you can see plumbing or pipes, cabinets, and any place where you can see the foundation.
- Tap at wood with a hammer or blunt object. If it makes a hollow sound, there could be termites there. Check especially structural wood that should not be hollow (i.e., it’s pointless to do this to your walls).
- Pick at wood with a penknife in various places. If there are termites just under the surface, it will come apart instead of resisting it.
Look for the tubes between the ground and any wood in your home. Try breaking them in one small spot if you see them. Usually there will be little termites running around in it – and if the colony is active, the tube will be repaired after awhile even if you don’t see any immediately.
Subterranean termites are social insects that live in nests or colonies in the soil, hence their name “subterranean.” These colonies contain three forms or castes: reproductives, workers and soldiers. Individuals of each caste have several stages: the egg; the larva that develops into a pseudergate and eventually into a brachypterous nymph or soldier; and the adult. Reproductive adults have three forms: primary, secondary and tertiary reproductive.
Reproductive males and females can be winged (primary) or wingless (secondary or tertiary). Each can produce new offspring. The bodies of primary reproductives, also called swarmers or alates, vary by species from coal black to pale yellow-brown. Wings may be pale or smoky gray to brown and have few distinct veins. Swarmer termites are about 1/4 to 3/8 inch long.
Secondary and tertiary reproductives in the colony are generally white to cream-colored and may have short wing buds. Developed as needed, they replace a primary queen when she is injured or dies. They also develop in addition to the primary queen and lay eggs for the colony. Supplementary reproductives, including a group of males, workers and soldiers, may become isolated from the main colony and can establish a new colony.
Termite workers make up the largest number of individuals within a colony. Workers are wingless, white to creamy white, and 1/4 to 3/8 inch long. They do all of the work of the colony — feeding the other castes, grooming the queen, excavating the nest and making tunnels. In working, they chew and eat wood, causing the destruction that makes termites economically important.
Soldiers resemble workers in color and general appearance, except that soldiers have large, well-developed brownish heads with strong mandibles or jaws. Soldiers defend the colony against invaders, primarily ants. In some types of termites generally occurring in arid regions, soldiers are called nasutes. Nasute soldiers have pear-shaped heads with a long, tube-like projection on the front. They exude a sticky substance to entrap their enemies.
It is important to be able to distinguish between swarming termites and ants. They often swarm around the same time of year, but control measures for each differ greatly.
Biology & Habits
After a termite colony matures, which requires from 2 to 4 years, swarmers are produced. Swarming usually occurs from January through April, during the daylight hours, usually after a rain. Environmental factors such as heat, light and moisture trigger the emergence of swarmers. Each species has a definite set of conditions under which it swarms. The number of swarmers produced is proportionate to the age and size of the colony.
Both male and female swarmers fly from the colony and travel varying distances. They are extremely weak fliers; wind currents usually carry those that travel any distance. Only a small percentage of swarmers survive to develop colonies; the majority fall prey to birds, toads, insects and other predators. Many also die from dehydration or injury.
A pair that survives lands and immediately seeks cover under rocks or other materials. The pair makes a very small nest before mating. Initially, the new queen termite lays only a few eggs. The male, or king, remains with the female because periodic mating is required for continued egg development.
Eggs are not deposited continuously; in fact, only a few hundred are deposited during the first year. In subsequent years, the young queen grows larger and lays more eggs. Larvae hatch from the eggs within several weeks and are cared for by the new king and queen. The larvae molt into pseudergate workers, and then into presoldiers or brachypterous nymphs. The colony stabilizes when the queen reaches maximum egg production. If the queen dies, secondary reproductives take over the queen’s duties.
The maximum size of a colony depends on such factors as location, food availability and environmental conditions, especially temperature and moisture. Some colonies remain small; others contain up to several thousand individuals.
New colonies form when the old colony produces swarmers or when groups of termites become isolated from the main colony and establish subcolonies. This is called colony splitting. These subcolonies may exist independently or unite with the main colony.
Subterranean termites derive their nutrition from wood and other material containing cellulose. Paper, cotton, burlap or other plant products often are actively attacked and consumed by termites. Subterranean termites cannot digest cellulose directly. They depend on large numbers of one-celled animals (protists) living in the termite hind gut to break down the cellulose to simple acetic acid, which termites can digest. Worker termites and older nymphs consume wood and share their nourishment with the developing young, other workers, soldiers and reproductives.
Termites are very attracted to odors of wood-decaying fungi that, through the decay process, make the wood easier to penetrate. In some instances, the fungi provide a source of nitrogen in the termite diet.
Moisture is important to subterranean termites, which have very little resistance to dehydration. To survive, they must maintain contact with the soil (their primary moisture source) or other above-ground moisture sources, such as in structures with defective plumbing or guttering.
Subterranean termites also must protect themselves from temperature extremes and attack by such natural enemies as ants and other insects. Termites foraging for food above ground protect themselves with shelter tubes, which are sometimes called mud tubes. Worker termites build the tubes from particles of soil or wood and bits of debris held together by salivary secretions. The tubes may be thinly constructed or large and thick-walled to accommodate many termites moving vertically between the soil and the food source.
This construction material also is found lining the galleries built in wood being attacked and aids in identifying termite-damaged wood. Shelter tubes often are used to bridge masonry or other objects, allowing termites access to a food source (wood) above ground.
Dead trees and brush are the original food source of subterranean termites. When land is cleared of this material and houses are built on these sites, termites attack the structures. Termites can enter buildings through wood in direct contact with the soil, by building shelter tubes over or through foundations, or by entering directly through cracks or joints in and under foundations.
Any material in direct contact with the soil — such as trees, vines or plumbing fixtures — serves as an avenue of infestation. Subterranean termite swarmers may also be blown into or on structures and then start a new colony.
Signs of infestation
The presence of swarmers, wings or damaged wood signals that termites are infesting a structure.
Swarmers: Generally, the first sign of infestation noticed by homeowners is the presence of swarming reproductives on window sills or near indoor light. Swarmers inside the house nearly always indicate an active infestation in the structure. The presence of swarmers outdoors is a natural phenomenon, but should warn that termites are near and possibly attacking a nearby building.
Wings: Another indication is the presence of wings, discarded by swarmers as a normal part of their behavior, found near emergence sites, on window sills or in cobwebs. Infestations also can be detected by the presence of shelter tubes going up the sides of piers, utility entrances or foundation walls.
Damaged wood: Wood damage often is not found initially, but it definitely indicates termite infestation. Any wood-to-soil contact is a potential site of entry into a home. Wood that yields a dull, thudding sound when struck by a screwdriver or hammer should be examined. Careful probing of suspected areas with a sharp, pointed instrument such as an ice pick will disclose termite galleries or damage.
Characteristics of damaged wood
Subterranean termite damage almost always is confined to the soft, springwood growth of the wood. Tunnels tend to follow the wood grain. They either are lined with the same material used to build shelter tubes, or have a pale, spotted appearance resulting from soft fecal material plastered on tunnel surfaces. Look for moisture sources that may cause wood decay, which can encourage subterranean termite infestation. Extensive deterioration from wood decay can be confused with termite damage.
In nature, termites function as decomposers that breakdown dead wood that accumulates in and on the soil. The beneficial products of this breakdown process are returned to the soil as humus. Drywood and subterranean termites are the most destructive insect pests of wood, causing more than $1.7 billion in damages and cost of control each year in the U.S. alone. Their presence in structures is seldom noticed until damage is discovered or the termites swarm within the building.
Drywood termites are found in the southern tier of states, from North Carolina through the Gulf Coast and into the coastal areas of California.
Drywood termites are social insects that live in colonies in sound, dry wood. Each colony consists of offspring from an original pair (male and female). There are three growth stages – eggs, immatures and adults. Drywood termites are larger than local, southwestern subterranean species.
In comparison to other termites drywood colonies are rather small (a few thousand individuals), and the colony develops relatively slowly. They neither live in the ground nor maintain contact with the soil, and they do not build mud tubes.
Subterranean termites produce liquid feces, whereas drywood termites produce characteristic pellets. These pellets are eliminated from the galleries through “kick holes”. Pellets tend to accumulate on surfaces located below the kick holes and are usually the first evidence of a drywood termite infestation.
Drywood termites tend to cut across wood grain destroying both the soft spring wood and the harder summer growth. Subterranean termites typically follow the grain of the wood, feeding primarily on the soft spring wood.
The reproductives are winged (alates or swarmers) or wingless males and females that produce offspring. The primary reproductives, also called swarmers or alates, vary in body color from dark brown to light yellowish tan. Their wings may be almost clear to smoke gray, and have few distinct veins in them. Swarmer drywood termites are about 7/16 inch long, including the wings. If the primary reproductives die, they are replaced by immatures that can become capable of reproductive activity. They are known as replacement or secondary reproductives.
In most drywood species there is no true worker caste (subterranean termites do have a true worker cast); this function is taken over by immatures. These immatures are wingless, white to beige in color, 1/4 to 3/8 inch long and make up the largest number of individuals within a colony. They gather food, enlarge the nest and feed and care for the queen, younger immature forms and others in the colony.
Soldiers resemble immatures in color and general appearance. However, they have large, brownish to yellowish-brown heads with enlarged, heavily sclerotized mandibles (jaws). Soldiers defend the colony against invaders, primarily ants. Soldiers are about 5/16 inch long.
After a drywood termite colony has matured (several years), winged alates (swarmers) are produced that leave the colony to establish new colonies. Swarming activity (nuptial flights) generally occurs at dusk or during the night and they tend to fly towards areas of greatest light intensity, gathering around lights or illuminated windows. However, the dark western drywood termite (Incisitermes minor) is a daytime swarmer. Swarming of Arizona species occurs in early to late summer with certain species swarming during the winter months of January and February also.
Some termite species are very regular down to the time and day of year that nuptial flights are made. Other species vary widely on the day and time. Certain environmental conditions, such as heat, light (time of day), rainfall and moisture conditions, wind, atmospheric pressure (especially rapid changes in pressure) and the electrical properties of the atmosphere (associated with thunderstorms) trigger the emergence of alates, and each species has a definite set of conditions under which swarming will occur. The number of alates produced will be proportionate to the age and size of the colony, while environmental conditions regulate the number of swarms emerging from the colony. The bulk of a colonies alates will be released in one or two synchronized swarms, then a few at a time are released throughout the rest of the season. Swarming constitutes a dispersal stage, rather than a true mating flight.
Male and female alates fly from the colony and travel varying distances. They are extremely weak flyers, but individuals can travel great distances carried by air currents during the summer monsoon season. Any alates that try to return from the outside are usually killed. Often, the soldier castes congregate around colony openings to defend the release of the alates.
Only a small number of the swarmers survive to develop colonies. The majority fall prey to birds, toads, reptiles, insects (primarily ants) and other predators. Many others die from dehydration or injury. When a pair alights, they shed or pull off their wings and immediately attempt to enter wood. Swarmers usually enter wood through cracks, natural checks, overlapping or adjoining pieces, or exposed end grain. A very small nest is developed after the pair has mated. Initially the queen lays relatively few eggs. The male, or king, remains with the female, since periodic mating is required for continued egg development.
Immatures hatch within several weeks and are cared for by the king and queen. After two molts, immatures assume the role of workers and begin to feed and care for the original pair. Eggs are not deposited continuously, and in fact, very few are deposited the first year. In subsequent years, the young queen matures and will lay more eggs. Eventually, the colony stabilizes when the queen reaches maximum egg production. At that point the colony will contain eggs, immatures, soldiers and reproductives. If the queen dies, one or more secondary reproductives take over her duties. The maximum size of a colony depends on factors such as location, food availability and environmental conditions. Most colonies remain small, but multiple colonies in the same piece of wood may contain up to 10,000 individuals. A colony grows through the queen’s increased egg production and the accumulation of long-lived individuals.
Drywood termites derive their nutrition from cellulose in wood. Within the termite’s gut are large numbers of bacteria and single-celled animals called protozoa. The protozoa produce enzymes that digest cellulose causing the break down of wood particles to simpler compounds that termites can absorb as food. The immatures consume wood and share their nourishment with the developing young, soldiers and reproductives.
Moisture is not as important to drywood termites as it is to subterranean termites. Drywood termites require no contact with the soil or with any other source of moisture. They extract water from the wood on which they feed, and also produce water internally during the digestive process. They require as little as 2.5 to 3 percent moisture, but prefer wood with 10 percent moisture content. Drywood termites often establish nests in roof materials and wooden wall supports accessed under eaves. However, despite being capable of surviving on low wood moisture they are also found in wood associated with a water source such as a leaky pipe or water heater. Dead wood accumulating around buildings and homes often serves as a source of infestation.
Homeowners most commonly confuse winged ants with termite alates as several species of ants and termites swarm during the same season.
Formosan termites are the most aggressive and destructive timber pests in the United States. It is an imported species, native to China.
It can develop huge nests containing millions of termites aggressively and relentlessly seeking and devouring structural timbers, utility poles and other timber structures, including ships and barges. Infestation can occur to living trees, such as oak, cypress, pine and maple.
They often cause power failures by chewing through electrical cabling. A termite to be feared – it is known to cause major structural timber damage to homes and buildings within a few months.
The Formosan subterranean termite (Coptotermes formosanus) has now become established in Florida and other southern states. At least one colony has been found In California (1995).
Formosan termites are a serious timber pest in Hawaii and coastal regions of Texas, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina and southern California, as well as, inland towns and cities.
The Formosan termite is rarely found North of 35° N latitude. They have been reported from 11 states including: Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. Their distribution will probably continue to be restricted to southern areas because their eggs will not hatch below about 20° C (68° F).
Formosan termites swarm in huge numbers in late spring or summer; usually following a warm rainy day. They prefer to swarm in times of high humidity in the evening hours from dusk to midnight. The swarmers are attracted to lights and are about 1/25”, including wings. Their body color is pale yellowish brown. A fontanelle (frontal gland pore) is present.
The swarmers have four wings of equal size with dark hard veins in the front portion of the front wing. The wings are a translucent, slightly milky color and covered with tiny hairs.
The armored head of the soldier is rounded tapering toward the front. A fontanelle (frontal gland pore) is present on the soldier’s forehead. They have large mandibles relative to their body, which is flat and narrower than the head. When disturbed the Formosan soldier termite may emit a white sticky latex substance from it’s fontanelle – a defensive measure to ensnare their enemies, primarily ants.
Formosan termites eat mainly the springwood of susceptible timbers, most often leaving the summer wood sections. Timbers infested by Formosan termites usually have layered sections packed with moist soil in high activity areas.
Formosan termites are subterranean termites that typically live in the ground and a large mature nest will periodically emit swarmers in large numbers over a wide area to find a mate from another colony nest to start up a new colony. A suitable location for nesting should provide a constant moisture source and a readily available timber food source close by.
Several years are required before the termite colony reaches the typically mature size, which may contain millions of termites foraging for timber food sources within a 400 feet radius, actively feeding on trees and free-standing poles as well as buildings and other timber structures.
The colony nests of Formosan termites are usually located in the ground below the frost line, but above the water table. They typically construct mud galleries or “shelter tubes” across hard objects in order to gain access to timber food sources.
Formosan termites constantly search for new food sources. They are known to enter buildings through cracks in concrete flooring or to travel under parquetry or tile flooring through gaps of less than 1/16″ wide. The space between the foundation and the first mortar joint is often enough space for termites to enter a home.
Formosan termites can establish secondary colonies in very moist wood of upper stories of buildings (even several stories above ground) and do not need soil contact if there is a nearly constant moisture source.
Where moisture regularly collects inside the wall or other cavities of a building, say from faulty plumbing or broken roof tiles, the Formosan termite can develop a subsidiary colony nest, which may not require contact with the ground to ensure its survival. This is particularly prevalent in areas of high humidity where wood moisture is above average.
Due to its size and aggressive foraging behaviour a colony of Formosan termites does more damage than single colonies of other U.S. subterranean species, and can cause significant structural damage to a home within 6 months.