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Subterranean Termite Biology


In nature, termites have an important role: They eat dead trees and, with the help of bacteria in their digestive systems, they digest the wood and return the nutrients to the soil. They are the only insects who can digest the cellulose component of wood.

The problem is that Termites aren't especially bright. If they stuck to eating dead trees, no one would bother them. But termites are too dumb to be able to tell the difference between a dead tree and a house; and so every year, millions of dollars are spent in the perpetual battle between humans and termites.

Subterranean termites live in the soil (hence their name) and eat wood. Because they are very susceptible to dehydration, can be injured by direct sunlight, and are considered tasty fare by many birds and other woodland creatures, they must stay hidden and close to the soil at all times.

In fact, if the termites had the last word on the matter, they'd probably never come out of the dirt.

Much to the termites' dismay, however, there's not always enough dead wood actually lying on the ground to keep their bellies full. Sometimes they have to travel a ways to get it. So when termites have to commute between the soil, and a piece of wood that's not actually touching the soil, they build shelter tubing to travel between the two. The presence of shelter tubing in a building is a sure sign that the structure has (or has had) a problem with termites.

Termite Society

One of the reasons that termites are so successful is that their highly developed caste system. There are four distinct castes of termites, of which three are seldom seen because they live underground.


Worker TermitesWorker termites, like workers everywhere, are the backbone of a termite colony.

These tiny, non-reproductive, wingless, grub-like creatures are responsible for foraging for food, excavating galleries in wood, caring for the young, and feeding other colony members.

But before you get too sentimental, you should know that workers are also the caste that does all the damage to our homes. Click here for a short movie of them in action.


Soldier TermitesSoldier termites are, well, soldiers. Their sole job (as far as we know, anyway) is to defend the colony from danger, such as predators.

Soldier termites' mandibles (mouthparts) are adapted into weapons for fighting off attacks, as a result of which the soldiers can neither chew wood nor feed themselves. Therefore, the workers must feed the soldiers.

Soldier termites are present only in mature colonies.


Reproductive TermiteReproductive Termites, except for the queen, have no duties within the colony other than to reproduce. Every colony has at least one reproductive known as the queen; more mature colonies may have additional reproductives known as supplementary reproductives, or "supps."

In addition to her reproductive duties, the queen also regulates the life of the colony through a complex and only partly-understood system of chemical messengers called pheromones.


Winged Reproductive termites (alates)Winged Reproductive Termites, properly called "alates" but often referred to as "swarmers," are produced by mature colonies. Their job is to leave the nest in pairs (commonly known as the king and the queen), clumsily flutter off into the big, wide world, find a suitable patch of dirt, and establish a new colony.

Alas, the great majority will die in the attempt, and their lifeless carcasses and shed wings are often the first evidence that homeowners see that their homes are slowly being devoured by termites.


Next: Termite Damage