Termite Colonies - The Basics

What are Termites?

Termites are a group of social insects that look a lot like ants, but are actually more closely related to cockroaches. They are swarm insects and form termite colonies. They're a major part of most ecosystems, since they break down dead plant materials, including leaf litter, wood, soil, and many other things that wouldn't deteriorate on their own. Without termites, there would be a lot more dead wood around.

However, when termites end up around humans, the traits that are good in the rainforest turn out to be mad. Around ten percent of the near four thousand different kinds of termites are major pests, causing serious damage to forests, crops and buildings.

Termites are social insects which live in colonies. Depending on the species, a single termite colony could have only a few hundred individuals in it, or up to several million. Typical termite colonies include several different kinds of termites, including nymphs (young termites), soldiers, workers, kings and queens.

Termite Queens:

Unlike many other hive insects, termites have multiple queens in many colonies. The primary queen is the one that founded the termite colony, but there may be secondary queens as well. The queen is much larger than other termites and has an elongated abdomen. She can lay an enormous number of eggs each day and is responsible for the growth of the colony. Queens are the only egg layers in the colony and when they are all killed, the colony can't continue. However, a colony without a queen may simply create a new one from a soldier.

Termite Life Cycle:

Termites live for different periods of time. Queens have been said to live as much as fifty years, but the average worker lives only a year or two. Termites hatch from eggs laid by the queen, and spend their early lives as nymphs - fed by workers. They then grow into specific types of termites, as determined by pheromones in the colony.

Termite Eggs:

The eggs that termites lay are unlikely to be visible to humans, unless you happen to open up a colony. Termite eggs are tiny and usually white or yellowish. They're nearly transparent, as well. They may look like much smaller grains of rice.

Termite Larva:

Newly hatched termites of most species look like tiny, soft white versions of the adults. They're unlikely to be seen by humans unless a nest is breached.

Termite Signs:

There are a number of different signs that termites may be in your home. For instance, termites may create mud tubes or mud sealants for travel and for keeping their nests secure. If you see what looks like mud on your foundation or on wooden surfaces, you may have termites. The shed wings of reproductives like the king and queen are another warning sign, as are a powder that looks like sawdust, bubbling paint, small holes in wood surfaces, hollow sounding areas in wooden parts of the house and, of course, actual termites. You may also see termite droppings in small piles around your home if you're dealing with drywood termites.

Termite Droppings:

These are one sign that you may have termites, and usually indicate an infestation of drywood species. They're granules, a little bigger than salt or pepper, and are dry and brownish. They appear at the base of a piece of wood that termites are living in, and are kicked out of a hole by the insects. Droppings of this sort will usually appear in small piles around your home or another infested area.

Termites and Wood:

Termites love to eat wood, but they don't like to eat all wood. Some species are more attractive to these insects, and some repel them. There are also some treatments you can use to make wood less desirable to termites. For instance, ordinary wood can be painted with borax or boric acid, or injected with orange oil (D-limonene) to make it unpalatable to and kill these creatures.

Woods that termites love include most hardwoods and many conifers. However, they're less eager to eat redwood, western cedar, teak, tallowwood, relatives of the neem tree, and several Japanese species. Building solely with these woods may be difficult, but they're an excellent choice when available.

Since termites are swarm insects they they form efficient functioning termite colonies so if you see one there are definitely more.

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By Frank Reece. Page last modified Nov. 10, 2008.

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