To successfully design and implement effective termite control programs, pest control professionals must have knowledge of termite biology. While termites may be a nuisance to your home, they do serve an important purpose in nature. Learn more about termites and their unique behavioral habits.

termite damage

What do termites eat?

Termites are detritivores, eating dead plants, and play an important role in recycling plant waste in the environment. Termites are insects that efficiently digest cellulose (found in wood, wood paneling) and products that contain cellulose (e.g., paper, cardboard, paint canvas, carpet) and are taxonomically related to wood-eating cockroaches.

Some scientists believe termites' digestive system can aid in the production of biofuels used by humans. The enzymes involved in breaking down biomasses in the termite foregut/midgut (site of depolymerization) and hindgut (site of saccharification and fermentation) are under study. In other words, these enzymes break down cellulose into simple sugars, such as glucose, that termites use for nutrition.

Termites can be divided into two groups: lower termites and higher termites. The lower termites primarily eat wood and wood products; however, higher termites can eat a wider variety of foods such as feces, grass, leaves and roots.

Flagellates (protists) and bacteria exist symbiotically in the gut of the lower termite, while higher termites have bacteria but no flagellates. Flagellates and bacteria assist the termite in cellulose digestion and, in turn, receive nutrition from the termite. Some termites are “fungus farmers,” i.e., fungi thrive on termite excrement and the termites benefit since fungi-infested wood is easier to digest.

soldier and worker termites

How do termites divide labor?

Knowledge of the species of termite you may have infesting a residence or other structure is important as termite treatment options differ for each type. Knowledge of the species of termite you may have infesting a home or other structure is important as termite treatment options differ for each type. Termite behavior varies from species to species. That makes it hard to identify termites without the help of an expert. For instance, drywood termites prefer dry wood that is above ground while subterranean termites form nests and colonies underground.

Termite colonies can be composed of up to several million insects and can be divided into three groups:

  • Dampwood (found in coniferous forests with high moisture, decaying wood, logs)
  • Drywood (found in hardwood forests, wood floors, wood frames, furniture, etc.)
  • Subterranean (found in many different regions, wood, cardboard, paper, etc.)

A caste system exists in termite colonies and includes the king, the queen, soldiers and workers. The king and queen are monogamous, and she is responsible for producing and laying fertile eggs (thousands per year). If the queen dies or otherwise leaves the colony, a new queen develops from an immature (nymphal) termite or a worker can differentiate into a reproductive queen.

The soldiers have large specialized heads and defend the termite colony by blocking entrance/exit tunnels and/or emitting secretions that subdue enemies. Some soldiers (depending on species) can injure enemy soldiers and also secrete toxins, poisons and/or anticoagulants to further harm their enemies.

Worker termites are in charge of digesting cellulose in wood products and feeding other termites in the colony through trophallaxis, i.e., termite workers transfer food/liquids to other termites (immature termites, soldiers and reproductives) via mouth-to-mouth or anus-to-mouth. Established subterranean termite colonies typically use about 1/3 of an acre as a food foraging area.

termites in a colony

How do termites communicate?

Termites communicate via chemical means, such as pheromones (alarm, trail, contact, sex), where one termite can change the behavior of another termite. Some pheromones require termite-to-termite contact for communication, while other pheromones are volatile and can travel through the air. Each termite colony has a distinct odor, depending on factors such as diet and the amount/type of gut microbes.

Alarm pheromones may be emitted by termites (via a frontal gland) when a non-nest mate is present or even when a pathogen (e.g., virus) is detected that may harm the colony. Alarm pheromones recruit more soldiers to an area of concern. Soldiers can also move in such a way to create vibrations that are a form of communication to other soldiers signaling alarm.

Trail pheromones (emitted from an abdominal or sternal gland) can be used for a variety of purposes, e.g., bringing other workers to food sources, identification of a new nesting location and/or recruitment of soldiers for defense.

Because each termite caste has its own distinctive pheromone scent, the queen can detect if there is a loss of pheromone given off by a specific group. For example, if ants invade the colony and kill a large number of the soldiers, diminishing the amount of scent from this group, the queen will produce an extra number of soldiers to replenish the supply.

Queen termites can also emit releaser pheromones that control behavior (e.g., so that workers tend to the queen and her eggs) or volatile primer pheromones that control physiology (e.g., so that workers subdue termites that may be showing signs of being reproductive – a threat to the queen). The queen’s eggs also release a volatile pheromone that suppresses the development of a non-queen termite into a reproductive termite. It is possible that a non-queen that has reproductive potential can impact the queen’s reproductive development by influencing the endocrine system; however, this is still under study by scientists.

Where do termites live?

Most species of termites live in underground nests; however, some species build elaborate mounds, above-ground nests or mud tubes. Mounds are made from termite feces, plant material and soil. Subterranean termites and dampwood termites require plenty of moisture for survival. Some subterranean termites travel above ground in areas of high moisture (e.g., roof leak, water heater, rainfall on boats, porches with plants that are watered frequently, etc.) and this can be indicated by shelter tubes built by termites that lead from underground nests to aboveground food sources.

Warmer areas are prone to greater termite damage; therefore, areas in the South face a greater risk of termites. But eastern subterranean termites are in every state in the United States except Alaska, so don't let your guard down.

Termites as pests

Termites cannot hurt humans physically, but they can destroy property, which can be costly.

Each year in the U.S., termite damage and treatment of homes and trees costs billions of dollars. Pest control professionals should be consulted to help prevent, diagnose and treat termite issues in residential settings. There are a variety of non-chemical and chemical methods that can be employed to help prevent and mitigate termite-related issues.

Understanding termite behavior and what to look for will help you watch out for these tiny homewreckers. A common entry point into your home may be through cracks in the foundation. It's important that if you see cracks in your foundation, you fill the cracks or at least monitor them very closely for termite tunnels.

Nonetheless, when it comes to termite prevention and control, the job is best left to a pest control professional.

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