Here's what you need to know about subterranean termites.

by Doug Webb

Subterranean termites live in nests deep in the ground, often 20 feet or more below the surface. The termite nest is where the queen, her eggs and the thousands of worker termites that care for them are located. They are all critical to the survival of the colony, and every termite has a job to do.

The Queen and Her Workers

The queen termite controls the colony size, organizes the work force and manages the general affairs of the colony. She also produces the eggs needed to make sure the colony continues to grow, increasing everyone’s chance for survival. These eggs, and the tiny termites that hatch out of them, are unable to survive without the care and support of the worker termites in the colony who maintain and feed them in nurseries within the nest.

Most of the new termites will become workers themselves, taking care of the young, building mud tubes for safe transit, and foraging for food. Mud tunnels constructed by the worker termites are one of the key things to look for when inspecting your home for termite attack.

The food they seek so diligently is wood, specifically the cellulose in wood. This is a good thing when they are working in a wooded area with fallen trees or limbs, but not when the wood they find is in your house! They are one of the few creatures on earth that can get nutrition from wood. Tiny organisms in their gut help them break down wood into carbohydrates. By the time they return to their nest mates, the wood has been digested and they share it throughout the colony, making sure everyone is fed.

Soldier Termites

Another group of colony members is the soldier termites. The soldiers have enlarged mouth-parts that they use to protect the colony from ants or other predators. When invaders enter the domain of the colony, the soldiers are summoned and they respond quickly to protect the colony.


Winged swarmer termites develop in more mature colonies during the latter days of winter. Early in the spring, usually on very nice sunny days, they fly away from the security of their home colony to try to start a new one of their own. They never look back. Hundreds or even thousands of termite swarmers may make this flight, but very few survive. Should they swarm in a well-maintained home, none are likely to survive. The presence of termite swarmers inside a home, however, is an important indicator that the termite colony members have found access into your home. If termites swarm in your home, you will need a professional to determine where they are getting in and what needs to be done to stop them.




Doug Webb is technical services manager, entomology and regulatory service s, with Terminix International. He’s an expert on wood destroying insects and has been instrumental in developing companywide training programs in his 33 years with Terminix.