Termites 101 – Know Your Enemy

Recyclers of the forests and jungles, termites provide a service to mankind and the rest of the living world. Termites eat wood, dead wood, not living trees. Microorganisms in their digestive systems break down wood-cellulose into the component glucose which can be used as fuel in termites muscles. Termites are part of the cycle of nature that make this world such a miraculous place.

Termites and Ants

Despite numerous similarities, there are distinctions between termites and ants. Ants have a “wasp waist” between their thorax and their abdomen; termites do not. In termites, the head, the thorax and the abdomen appears as a continuous, but increasing width from front to back. Ants do not specialize in wood consumption as termites do.

Termite Societies

Each colony of termites has a large queen termite who lays the eggs and thus provides for a continuation of the colony. One or more males hang around to provide fertilization of the eggs produced by the queen. They have little else to do, but they are necessary.

Most of the colony are female workers who scurry around to maintain the nest and eat the wood that provides the nourishment for the rest of the colony. In addition to getting food for themselves, they feed the queen, the males, the soldiers, for the vast population of larvae from which the future generations of queens, males, workers, and soldiers will come. Yes, there is a professional military in many termite colonies, soldier termites with large sharp mandibles and strong head structures necessary for their military duties.

The Different Kinds of North American Termites

In America there are four kinds of termites, drywood, dampwood, subterranean, and Formosan. Most widespread are the subterranean termites which live in the ground near a wooden structure and develop enclosed passageways into the structure. There these termites work under the surface of wooden components which are weakened as the wood is invisibly devoured. Less than a hundred years ago some foreign invaders, Formosan termites came to Texas and spread throughout the Southern States. These Formosan termites are much more diligent than our home grown subterranean termites, and they are therefore more damaging to wooden structures in the United States.

Drywood termites are the kind that live within a piece of furniture. They somehow get enough water from the wood itself to support their life. You might buy an antique and unknown to you it is infested with drywood termites. Once in your home, these can spread to other items of furniture, or the structural wood of your home.

Dampwood termites are the kind of big termites that inhabit the fallen logs in the forests of northern California and the Pacific Northwest. They recycle the fallen wood and provide for nourishment for the next generation of forest growth.

These American termites are a minor representation of the world-wide termite population. Jungle areas produce more wood and they have produced many varieties of termites. Many of these jungle termites have much more complex habitations than the termites in the temperate United States.

The Termite Life Cycle

The queen lays the eggs. Queens are much larger than the mature worker termites in the next. The extended abdomen of the queen termite is an egg factory that keeps going and going. The eggs are carried away by the worker termites to hatching chambers in the termite nest and they are cared for as they are maturing. The males fertilize the female, injecting the sperm into the ovaries, so that the eggs are ejected from the queen already fertilized and developing.

When the eggs hatch they become larvae which need nourishment and tending. In the earliest stages of a colony the queen might feed the larvae, but as the colony gets larger, the workers perform to these functions. After some period of growth the larvae go into the pupae stage where they are transformed into adult termites.

A few of the pupae will emerge as female future queens and fertile males. These will mature with wings and will swarm off to become new couples founding a new colony of termites in another location.

Most of the pupae will emerge as workers to increase the viability of their mother and her mate. These workers adapt to a host of assignments in or near the nest. They scurry around appearing to have some task or another at all times. Still other pupae will emerge as soldiers fully equipped and designed to defend the colony.

Termite Nests and Colonies

As indicated above, there are many kinds of termites world-wide and they have different kinds of dwellings. All termites need wood and water. Take away their supply of either of these and the termites will disappear. All termites prefer isolation from the rest of the world. They like enclosed space and protected passageways.

Many species termites will dwell in the ground, establishing elaborate chambers in loose earth for housing the larvae and eggs. These underground termite nests will have to be close to a supply of wood and they will often have covered passageways between the wood and the living quarters. If subterranean termites find enclosed empty space, they might extend their nest outside the ground area, constructing nests of soil mixed with wood they have processed into a paper like substance.

In Central America and elsewhere large termite nests will be mounted in trees. The termites in the nest will be protected from their predators on the ground, but they have to go down the tree trunk to the food supply on the forest floor.

In Africa, Australia, and other tropical places termites might erect substantial structures, some of them of cement-like materials which the worker termites have processed. Here, numerous queens give rise to millions upon millions of termites in a single colony. These termite nests are substantial structures several meters high and several meters in circumference. In Southeast Asia one such structure had a resemblance to Buddha, and was venerated by the local human worshippers.

The Size of Termites

The newly hatched larvae and even freshly emerging adults are often quite small. As these adult, workers and soldiers, will increase in size. When fully grown such adult workers and soldiers may be Ľ inch in length up to ľ inch. For example, the dampwood termites in Northwest United States might be of the larger type, while the subterranean termites might be in the smaller range. The mature queens in almost all species may be two or three inches in length, most of that being the egg producing abdomen. The males will be larger than the workers, but definitely smaller than the queens.

Swarms of Termites

Many species of termites will go through a mating ritual which becomes visible. Newly matured queens and males will have wings and they will swarm together, the females anxious to find a suitable male with which to mate. When such a match is made, the two will fly off together and establish a new home, maybe in the soil, maybe in fallen log, depending the species and type of termite. This swarming behavior may be the most visible to humans that termites become. Generally, termites want to be invisible, since there are many other insects, birds, bats and other creatures which would like to dine on a termite meal.


Humans will do well to watch for the signs of termite infestation. This may take the form of a strange line appearing on a stone or concrete foundation of a human habitation. When such a line appears, the owners of the house should not ignore it. They should follow the line to where it enters the house. Some of the wood in a dwelling might be more tasty than other types of wood. The writer remembers following such a line in a home in New Jersey. Sure enough it led to a piece of pine wood which was infested by termites.

Termite Prevention

Termite baiting and staking are common methods of control. This involves providing some attractant materials that will lure the worker termites into a place where they will pick up some slow-acting poison. The workers carrying poison will carry it back to the colony and infect the entire group, including the queen, the males, and the soldiers.

To make this procedure work, it might be advisable to plant several stakes around your dwelling in order to find where the termites are and where they are not.. Professional termite control workers can help a lot in planning such a campaign for the protection of your house and other buildings.

Other methods of termite control involving fumigating the soil all around the the buildings in order thoroughly prevent subterranean and Formosan termites from invading any of your buildings.

Termite Tenting and Fumigation

Suppose your house and furniture are completely infested with drywood termites. You may want to fight back with tenting. It is called tenting because your entire house will be covered with a huge plastic tarp. A poison gas is going to be released inside this enclosure. The gas will penetrate every nook and cranny. When the house has thus been fumigated for a couple of days, all the termites will be dead, dead, dead. You will want to remove the fish in the aquarium and any other living things in the house, including you and the kids.