All about the Different Types of Termites, Termite Life Cycle, Identification, Facts & Other Information
See also: Termite Control
The termite belongs to the order of the roaches called Blattodea. It has been known for decades that termites are closely related to cockroaches, predominately the wood eating species of roach. Until recently, the termites were the order Isoptera, which is now the suborder. This new taxonomical shift is supported by data and research to confirm the new comparison that termites are actually social cockroaches. This suborder of Isoptera has over 2,600 species worldwide, and 50 species that call North America their home. The heaviest populated areas are located in the tropic and sub tropic regions.
The origin of the name Isoptera is Greek and means two pairs of straight wings. The termite has been called the white ant over the years and commonly confused with the true ant. It wasn’t until modern times and the use of microscopes they were able to observe distinguishing features between the two orders. The features were the straight termite antennae, the four equally sized wings, the broad waist of the thorax, and broad abdomen.
The earliest termite fossil known in existence dates back to over 130 million years ago.
Image source: DOW AgroSciences
Image source: Bug Master
Termite Infestation Probability Map
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The map above outlines the probability of a termite infestation occurring based on climate factors and habitat needs of termites.
The termite species spans the entire world. Habitats are the heaviest in the tropic regions, subtropics, and warmer climate regions. Termites thrive in the warm moist lowlands and along coasts. Some species of North America have adapted to colder temperatures allowing them to infest homes and other wood sources farther north.
Where do termites come from? The termite order branches from an ancient wood cockroach-like insect about 100 million years ago. The advances in molecular data gives the proper evidence to confirm the origin of the termites. Termites as a majority are known to inhabit the tropical regions around the world. Few of the species are able to branch out into the northern territories. With the characteristics of being social insects, termites mimic other social insects like bees, ants, and wasps. Termites, though, are different in the simple reason that any cast can be male or female, but in other social insects all workers and soldiers are female! Throughout history, the termites, also called white ants or wood bugs, have destroyed structures and invaded homes over countless centuries. They continue to cause billions of dollars in damage every year all over the world. Termites today that spend their lives within the food source are the most primitive of termite species. The next more moderately adapted termites live in the soil and forage for wood. African termites are some of the most advanced termites in the world that farm funguses and grasses. These termites live in the soil all of their lives and construct mounds that are in the record books. They also rank amongst the largest in the world. The movement to understand these insects has led to many discoveries and ideas. Leading researchers and engineers are copying the structure and venting mechanics of African termite mounds. There are also experimental trials being conducted using termites to create biofuels. The termites are truly novel insects that are ranked amongst the most successful insect pests.
Order Blattodea (Termites)
Over hundreds of years have been spent on just understanding termite types and the way they live. The world of termites has been mapped out extensively to discover over 2,800 members throughout the world today. The niche of these social cockroaches success is the division of labor and going undetected by most predators.
The dampwood termites of the family Termopsidae are among the largest termites in the world. They come in at a whopping 25mm in length. There are around 20 species in the world, spread amongst the Americas, Eurasia, Africa, and Australia. They live in the forests and nest in the wet, rotting, and rotten woods on the forest floor. The queens of this species have a longer egg production than the other families, around 30 or less a day. The colony sizes are around a moderate 10,000 members on average. Due the extreme nutritional investment of having larger individuals, the eggs produced had to decrease exponentially.
The Rhinotermitidae is better known as the subterranean termite family. The family is known best for its typical requirement of the nest they create to maintain contact with the soil. There are some exceptions in some genera. The soldiers of this family are known for having a flattened region behind the head called the pronotum, and for producing a defensive fluid. Both the worker and soldiers of this family are quite small, less than 5mm in size. The workers and soldiers both share the pale white color. The average queen in this family produces 100 termite eggs a day. This family is found on every continent except for the Polar Regions and nearby lands. There are more than 300 species worldwide.
Eastern Subterranean Termite (Reticulitermes flavipes)
Formosan Subterranean Termite (Coptotermes formosanus)
The nasutiform termite family is not known for destroying any homes. This family is actually a beneficial species to the desert ecosystem. The family contains the builders of great mounds some recorded as high as eight meters. The species range is grouped around the tropical climates in Asia, Africa, Australia, and South America. Few species of this family are in the deserts of North America. There are over 1,800 species from this family that call Africa their home. This species is known to be one of the most prolific animals in the animal kingdom, generating over 10 million eggs a year per queen.
Tube-building Termite (Gnathamitermes perplexus)
This family is the primitive species found only in Northern Australia and Papua New Guinea. It is said to be the most primitive of all the termite species. The fossils found of this species date back to the tertiary era. The hind wings are very similar to those of the cockroach. The females of the Mastotermes genius actually lay egg cases that have up to 24 eggs arranged in two regular rows. The primary queen of these colonies has never been found. There are many secondary reproductives that raise the populations in the millions. The soldiers have powerful mandibles and excrete a toxic brown substance to repel intruders.
This is the dry-wood termite family. The name dry-wood comes from the family’s need to feed on wood above the ground, unlike most termites who most come into contact with the wood through the soil. However, this species has habits to feed and dwell in damp wood and rotten wood. There are over 400 species of dry-wood termites worldwide. This family is also found commonly in almost all continents with the exception of Antarctica.
The Hodotermidiae family is known as the grass-harvesting termites. This family currently has 15 species that closely resemble the dampwood termite species. The grass-harvesting termites are fairly large, at around 15mm in size. This species occurs most commonly in the savannas of India, the Middle East, and Africa. This species is best compared to the dampwood termites.
The Serritermitidae family is very similar to the family Rhinotermitidae which are the subterranean termites. They prefer to create nests with contact to the soil. There is a single species in the world. This species only occurs in South America. The soldiers have unique mandibles that have serrated teeth-like projections on the inside.
Roaches vs Termites
The changes in recent research suggest the comparison of ants and termites is all wrong. The current scientific termite report states that the termites may look similar to ants, but they are actually decedents of a common ancestor of cockroaches. Ants derive from the bee and wasp lineage. Who would have thought that termites are actually social cockroaches that split off from the roach order 130,000 or more years ago! It has been concluded that the termites and cockroaches you see today have evolved from a common cockroach mantis like ancestor. This ancestor eventually gave rise to the mantis, cockroach, and termite insects.
Image source: ucdavis.edu
The image above shows the lineage origins of cockroaches, mantis, and termites before the new revision.
Image source: ucdavis.edu
This image above shows the timeline of the shifts in the organization of the Dictyoptera superfamily which includes the mantis, cockroach, and termites. This chart shows that the three major orders derived from a common cockroach like ancestor.
Image source: blattodea-culture-group.org
The image above shows the current lineage organization of the termite families, cockroaches families, and mantis order.
King and queen termites swarm in the summers in large groups of thousands in search of a mate. The two mates have a mild courtship dance, and then begin to start their own colony. The male or king shares the labor with the queen as she is fertilized and ready to begin having baby termites. The first year of laying eggs the queen can have anywhere from a hundred to thousands of eggs a day. The two care for the first few generations until there are enough young or workers to help the two. When hatched into larvae, the young termites can become workers or soldiers depending on the pheromones and temperatures the eggs are exposed to. The workers are the sole providers in the colony’s division of labor and it relies on them to care for all of the feeding, maintains order of the young and developing babies, and foraging. The workers and soldiers can be male or female; it doesn’t matter because both are sterile. The population of the colony will continue adding massive numbers for about five years, then the queen will have her first reproductive alates, or young kings and queens. They will mature and prepare to swarm and leave to start another colony in the summer. The cycle continues over and over.
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The development of a termite is called an incomplete metamorphosis. This is scientifically known as hemimetabolus life cycles. The termite’s life cycle can result in three different types of termite or caste types. The three types consist of reproductive, workers, and soldiers. The life cycle contains an egg, young termite larvae or termite nymph, older nymph, worker, soldier, pseudergate, drone, and queen. This is a typical social insect system allowing for proper labor division. Once a termite egg amongst countless thousands of others hatches, it is then called termite larva or larvae. The larva can become one of the three castes: worker, soldier, or a secondary or supplementary reproductive termite. This happens based on social, environmental, and termite pheromone cues. The larva then molts until it reaches maturity, which usually takes three molts. The larva can become a worker or soldier and its life cycle is over until it dies. The larva also could become a reproductive alate or secondary reproductive, where it goes on to reproduce and become a king or queen termite for another colony. The queen has the longest life, spanning on average from 25 years. The other types of termite’s life span vary from 12 to 24 months.
Members of the Colony or Termite colonies:
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Termites are classified in the suborder or infraorder Isoptera, more commonly known as the pale white ant. This suborder has four North American families and seven total families worldwide. The four families of North America contain 44 known genera, and of total seven genera make up 2,300 species. Termites are known for creating massive colonies making them one of the top economic pests. Within each colony there are three distinct types of termite or ways to classify each member. The colony is made up of both immature and reproductive adult termites. The immature termites make up the bulk of the colony. The adults in each colony are known as the king and queen. The last type is the fully developed winged adults. The adults are the darkest and most developed in the colony bear wings until they find a mate. Once the king and queen find each other, they then form a new colony by mating. Then the two mates shrug off their wings and care for the first batch. Once the queen is fertilized she begins producing eggs around the clock. The smallest immature type is the worker it has a pale transparent white color and has small or absent eyes. The next is the soldier easily distinguished by having massive mandibles and a slightly darker pigment than the worker. The soldier uses its large chewing mouthparts defend of the colony. The termite species are hemimetabolus which means that they lack a complete metamorphosis.
Termites, like most insects in the world, prefer moist warm conditions in which they can thrive. Termites become most active during the spring and summer months. Termite season can occur year around. During these months, locating termites can be as easy as finding a fallen tree. The warmth allows even the smallest population of termites to thrive. The key to their population growth is food, water, and warmth. The warm plays a key factor in the incubation of the baby termites as well. The fall and winter months are possibly the most frequent times to find them near or in homes. Termites hide in the walls of our homes to feed and stay warm. Termites can be found in the home for these reasons. The warmth produced by the home itself makes for a perfect shelter to inhabit with moisture and food. Termites in winter are not thriving this time of year so finding termites in the wild becomes harder as most populations go deep in the ground or die.
Are termites blind?
Out of the three casts in a termite nest there is only one that has fully developed eyes, which are the adult reproductive termites, or the king and queen termites. The ground termites or worker and soldier termites are all blind or have poorly developed eyes. They forage much like ants for wood daily. They trail and located wood with the use of pheromones and sensory organs.
Why do termites eat wood?
The termite has modified over time to digest the wood cellulose and thrive off its energy.
How do termites eat wood?
The adult workers feed the whole colony, by regurgitating food or wood decomposed in its gut. The workers feed soldiers, termite larvae, termite babies, kings, and queens. The wood is decomposed in its gut by flagellate protozoa within the fauna of the gut that digests the wood to a source of sharable nourishment. This termite symbiosis has allowed them to thrive over countless millennia.
Do Termites bite?
Termites do not bite humans. It may look like termites are capable of biting. The only one that may bite or light pinch the skin is a soldier termite. Termite bite never occurs on purpose they have poor vision and wouldn’t grab you unless you pressed your finger on them or made them bite you. The soldier class of termite has massive mandibles to protect and defend the colony. This feature is mainly to prevent intruding ants or other small insects from entering into the colony. The termite itself solely feeds on wood and is slow moving. They do not feed on anything else.Termites are herbivores which mean to eat plant matter or hylophagous which means to eat wood
Do termites fly?
Many wonder how termites travel. Can termites fly? Do termites have wings? Do termites jump? Well yes, termites fly! But they don’t jump their legs are not specialized for jumping. They have two sets of wings the same size. But not all termites in the colony have the capabilities to fly. The only class or caste that flies is the reproductive adults. The reproductive adults can be seen both in the colony and in termite swarms during reproductive events. The termite swarmer’s are only kings and queens.
How big are termites?
What is the difference in the termite sizes? The kinds of termites vary in niches across the world along with their habitats and sizes. The size of termites also varies in amongst the species, climate regions, country, and population size. In North America there are four popular species such as the dampwood, subterranean, Formosan, and tube-building termites.
What does termite damage look like?
Termite signs must be checked for frequently and often. Termites bore and live in the wood or near a wood source. They can construct elaborate galleries in the home or wherever they nest. The signs can be wood pellets in the floor or near base boards or doorways. The evidence of termites is sometimes a mud tube(s) or mud mounds on or around the source of wood like posts, support beams, or exposed wood in crawl spaces. If the damage persists there can be signs of the wood thinning and holes on the surface of the wood. There can even be termites in the garden where they’re known to feed on any available plant and organic matter. The termite diet revolves around cellulose, which is in every plant or tree.
What do termite droppings look like?
The most common misconception is that every hole in wood, kick out, and sawdust debris is from a termite. This is incorrect. The termites actually ingest the wood, so the sign of termites in the wood are wood colored or darker brown pellets of excrement. The ants or carpenter ant species just moves the wood out, squeezes its moisture out, and burrows into the structure to create a colony. The debris of ants looks just like sawdust
What attracts termites?
Just like all insects, termites behave on the basis of the four simple needs. Termites need shelter, food, water, and warmth to thrive. The primary source of food for the termite is wood, so any form or structure with wood is at risk. Do termites really EAT wood? Yes! The wood that termites feed on gives them cellulose nourishment. Cellulose is a plant fiber found in wood and lumber, and anything made with it. The shelter can consist of anything from a fallen tree or firewood to a household. The season heavily determines on where the termites will harbor and move towards. Homes make for great warm shelters in the colder months.
What do termites do?
Do termites carry disease?
Termites do not transmit diseases to humans. The only disease or result of termites’ presence is for mold and fungus to allow them to further kill the tree or weaken the wood.
What is the average termite lifespan?
The termite’s life cycle and length varies amongst species and cast. The lifespan for an average worker and soldier is 10-14 months. The reproductive adults typically live anywhere from 1 year to 4 years or more. The reproductive females, or queens, live the longest at around 25 or more years.
Where do termites live?
Termites are drawn to their food source and that makes them drawn to any type of wood. So you will find termites in homes, logs, fallen timber, firewood, and other wooden made structures and products. Termites in trees will actually destroy and kill trees. Termites are often drawn to mulch, and the termites in mulch then move into the home.
What color are termites?
Termites are dark brown, black, pale white and pale yellow in color. The workers are the most numerous and all white. The soldiers are yellowish white color. The kings and queens have wings and are the dark brown or black colored termites.
Do termites make noise?
Can you hear termites? If the termite population large enough you may be able to hear the colony at work marching through the walls, boards, trees or fire wood. The best way to hear the termites is to expose the termite tunnels.
How do termites look?
The termites do not look or see. The termites actually feel and smell their way around. The sensory and chemical pheromone receptors organize the colony. Only the mature fully developed kings and queens can see.
What eats termites?
What are termite predators or natural predators? Termites are preyed upon for their great source of protein. There are a host of amphibians and reptiles that feed on the cockroach species. Small reptiles like geckos, lizards, iguanas, and young snakes, as well as amphibians like frogs and toads. There are also a host of insects and arachnids, along with beetles, wasps, and most spiders that take roaches as a meal. The roaches are also attacked by funguses that spread through roaches contact with one another.
How do you get termites?
Termite colonies reach massive sizes with every year and at five years old the colony begins producing reproductive adult king and queens. The constant need to feed these constant growing colonies requires food. The harvests of any and all wood types are on the menu of worker termites. You are always at risk for termites unless you create termite walls of protection or line the soil with control products.
When do termites swarm?
Termites swarm on summer nights with thousands of other king and queens from many other colonies to mate and create new colonies. The termite swarm season may vary depending on the region and the weather if it is warm enough to swarm and reproduce.
Some insurance companies have set up policies to cover termite damage. Termites cost North America anywhere from one to two billion dollars annually. The termite insurance mainly covers collapses and other severe instances involving termites, but these policies are all different and only pay for certain amounts of damage or none at all. Homeowners insurance is a must have and will save the investment’s value from depreciating. Most mortgages and home loans require homeowners insurance.
The insurance will not cover any form of infestations of termites. So you must protect yourself as well by making your property less inviting to these gregarious creatures.
What are the top termite pests?
Other Interesting Facts about termites
Did you know?
Eiseman, Charley, Noah Charney, and John Carlson. Tracks & Sign of Insects & Other Invertebrates: Guide to North American Species. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole, 2010. Print.
Evans, Arthur V. National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Insects and Spiders & Related Species of North America. New York: Sterling Pub., 2007. Print.
Resh, Vincent H., and Ring T. Cardé. Encyclopedia of Insects. Amsterdam: Academic, 2003. Print.