subterranean termite photo

Contributed by: Doug Webb

Updated on: November 11, 2022

Subterranean termites have a voracious appetite, and can cause significant damage to wooden structures – including your home. This species of termite builds tunnels (called mud tubes) in the soil beneath your property. These tunnels can branch upwards into any wood that makes contact with the soil, giving them potential access to your home. They can also build mudtubes from the soil, over concrete foundations or through cracks in the foundation to access the wood in the house. Once a termite colony takes root, these relentless pests can chew through that wood to create more tunnels and feed on the cellulose found in wood, potentially compromising the structural integrity of a building.

Let's take a closer look at subterranean termites and learn how to help prevent an infestation.

What do subterranean termites look like?

The general characteristics of subterranean termites are:

  • 1/8 to 1 inch in length
  • Lightly colored (cream or beige)
  • Six legs
  • Some have wings (alates or swamers)
  • Two straight antennae

However, there are some subtle differences between the different castes of subterranean termites, with each taking on a distinct role within their colony. The three different castes are:

  • Worker termites – Workers search for food and execute maintenance tasks. They create mud tunnels, which protect the colony from dry environments and form a safe passage to obtain food and sustenance, which they then distribute to the other castes.
  • Reproductives – This group includes the king and queen, as well as the winged alates – or “swarmers." Swarmers look for mates in order to build new colonies. Their main goals are mating and creating new termites. Swarmers are usually dark brown or black with some species being tan of a lighter brownish color.
  • Soldier termites – Soldiers protect other termites by defending the colony.

termites on wood

While they are the same species, each caste looks slightly different from one another.

  • Size: Workers measure one-eighth to three-eighths of an inch in length. Soldiers are as long as workers, but have larger heads with powerful mandibles. Most swarmers (apart from kings and queens that are larger in size) measure about one inch in length when the wings are included.
  • Color: Workers are cream-colored and pale. Soldiers are also lighter in color, but have darker heads. Supplementary reproductives are this same opaque shade, but primary reproductives are brown or black.
  • Behavior: The three main castes of subterranean termites – workers, soldiers and swarmers – have specific jobs to do within the colony, and each is uniquely equipped with the tools they need to get the job done.

Delving a little deeper into these differences, soldier termites have large mandibles (pincers) they use to defend their colony from outside pests, such as ants. Their larger heads support these pincers, giving them the ability to fend off predators, such as ants, that may invade.

worker and soldier termites on wood

Conversely, subterranean termite workers are small, opaque insects that can separate wood or other cellulose from its source. These workers live their entire lives in dark tunnels, both above and below ground. They do not have eyes because they do not need them. But, interestingly enough, they can still tell the difference between light and dark. They know being in the light means they are in danger of predator attacks, not to mention losing valuable moisture from their bodies. When worker termites find themselves in the light, they return to the dark as quickly as they can.

Eyeless termites are still able to sense their way through their dark, underground mud tubes using scent, their antennae, and feeling vibrations to navigate and do their part within the colony.

As the colony grows, supplementary termite queens help lay eggs and increase the size of the colony. Subterranean termite swarmers – another form of reproductive termites – develop when the colony is three to five years old and eventually leave to form a new colony. These subterranean termites have eyes that are much more developed since they have to leave the security of the dark nest and mud tunnels. Out of all three types of termites, they're the only ones that can see.

Subterranean termite habitats

As their name indicates, subterranean termites live several feet below ground in bustling colonies. These colonies are comprised of a series of thin, pencil-like tubes (called “mud tubes" or “mud tunnels"). These tubes can be confined to areas beneath the soil, as well as branch upward and connect with the wooden foundation of a home, allowing them to expand.

Subterranean termite damage

Subterranean termites can cause damage to the wooden members of your home. They create mud tunnels and tunnel through wood in order to transport their eggs and food. These tunnels may eventually cause significant damage to the integrity of a wooden structure.

At first, subterranean termite damage may not be visible. Some people don't notice any signs of infestation before it's too late. That's why regular termite inspections are so important to keeping these pests – and their potential for costly damage to your home – at bay.

Subterranean termite treatment

Subterranean termite treatment involves a comprehensive set of measures aimed at targeting the infestation at the highest points of termite activity. Because it can be hard to detect termites – and the exact species of termite that may be on your property – it's best to enlist the aid of a termite control specialist.

Your termite technician will inspect for signs of termites, including tunnels inside and outside of your home to confirm if subterranean termites are afoot. From there, they can determine just how deep their colony has penetrated your property and the extent of the infestation.

Terminix termite specialists employ a variety of treatment techniques to effectively target colonies and help you to monitor the situation, avoiding a resurgence.

Subterranean termite control

Termite attacks are subtle, often going undetected for many years. Over time, they can cause serious damage. Don't wait for termites to show themselves. Trained specialists know where to look and what to do to help keep termites out. They can help give you the protection you need and the peace of mind you deserve.

For termite prevention:

  • Store all firewood away from the home.
  • Make sure four inches of the foundation is showing and no mulch is touching the home. Siding should not extend down into the soil.
  • Keep drainage systems unblocked and routing water away from the home to prevent buildup.
  • Eliminate leaks and moisture from the home in general.

If left unchecked, termite damage can wreak thousands of dollars worth of havoc on your home. However, your best offense against termites is a good defense. Routine termite inspections conducted by a qualified team of professionals can help detect these pests and mitigate damage before costs mount up. Schedule your free termite inspection with Terminix today. 

Subterranean Termite Resource