Many people have trouble believing that a creature less than an inch long can cause billions of dollars in structural damage every year. Individually, termites are not that impressive to look at. However, when you look at an entire termite colony, then they appear formidable indeed. If enough food is available, then colonies can reach 1 million members.
These million members work like cells in a single body, prompting some biologists to label them “superorganisms.” Termites do not suffer from political revolutions, philosophical differences or labor shortages. Each member of the colony works to the benefit of the colony and not for the benefit of the individual. This makes a termite colony a mighty foe indeed.
The key to killing a colony is to kill the queen. She can lay tens of thousands of eggs a year, so any other termite members killed are easily replaced. Although queens spend most of their long lives immobile, they can be hard to locate. Since she is fed by her workers, exterminators leave poisoned food bait for workers to find and distribute throughout the colony and hopefully to the queen.
There are between two and three thousand species of termites. In North America, they generally fall into three types:
Drywood: As their name suggests, these termites prefer dryer organic materials made with plenty of plant cells. In the United States, they can only survive in hot climates. They are found on the West Coast and in southern and western states. Drywood termite colonies tend to average 10,000 individuals.
Dampwood: These termites prefer rotting wood and often avoid living in soil. They tend to live in hot, humid areas that promote plant decay such as Florida and the Pacific Coast states. In the United States, dampwood termites are the largest. Soldiers can grow to 13.5 mm long and queens can be a full inch.
Subterranean: These are the most numerous and unfortunately the most destructive type of termite in North America. They are not fussy about how moist their wood is. They prefer to live underground and send out long tunnels or mud tubes to their food supply. Subterranean termite queens have been known to live a staggering 50 years and produces thousands of eggs every single year.
The Termite Diet
Everybody knows that termites eat wood – right? Well, they do not exactly eat wood. They eat the cellulose and lignin in plant cells. Wood just happens to contain a lot of plant cells. Termites do not just eat wood. They can eat anything made with plant material, including gardening mulch, cardboard, plywood, paper (including money) and bird seed.
Not only do termites have a wide range of food sources but they also have jaws strong enough to chew tunnels through all of these materials. Think concrete can keep out termites? Think again. Termites can quickly exploit any cracks or crevices inside of concrete. They have been known to tunnel through cracked concrete or cracks around expansion joints in concrete to enter buildings.
Termites live in castes. There is no advancing from the lowest worker to the royal reproductive because the king and queen produce pheromones which stunt the sexual maturity of workers and soldiers. Termites are born into their castes. There are three major castes: reproductives, workers and soldiers.
Reproductives: So called because these are the only sexually mature members of the colony. There is only one king (male) and queen (female) to a colony. Males are often superfluous to an established colony, since a queen can store sperm in her body for all of her life. Her nuptial mating flight (which happens only once in a queen’s life) often provides her with enough sperm to crank out fertile eggs for the rest of her life. Some species do mate after the flight. Queens are the largest members of the colony. They can bloat into a staggering 100 times larger than the workers that care for her. She becomes so huge that she can no longer move.
Workers: These are the most numerous members of a termite colony. They can be a few millimeters long to about a centimeter in length. Workers may be larger or smaller than others depending on what jobs they perform. They care for queen, king, eggs, larvae and soldiers. They scout for food, remove trash and feces from the colony and build new tunnels. They can be male or female.
Soldiers: As their name suggests, soldiers protect the colony. Their heads are about the size of their bodies. Their bites can be painful. The heads have to be that big in order to house enough muscles to work the huge jaws that cause the painful bites. Soldier jaws are made to do one thing only – protect the colony. They cannot eat or clean themselves. Fortunately for the soldiers, workers feed and clean them. Soldiers can also be male and female. Some species (not found in North America) lack jaws but squirt a kind of acid which can be even more painful than the bites.
So Have Some Respect for Termites
When you think about it, it’s a wonder that termites haven’t taken over the planet. Most are less than one inch long (depending on species) and yet they and their incredibly tiny brains are able to build complicated structures, search and gather food and tend their young all while completely blind.
When talking about the magnetic termites of Australia, famed naturalist Sir David Attenborough likes to point out that if a termite worker was the size of a human, then their mounds would be five miles high. “And that’s something,” he concludes, “that we haven’t managed yet.”
So have some respect for termites. Although each individual is tiny, the entire colony is a massive, intelligent force that wreaks billions of dollars of structural damage to humans every year. In order to avoid being the next target of termite colonies, get a termite inspection for your home and property every year.
Additional Resources on Termite Sizes
- Formosan Subterranean Termites by University of Florida Entomology
- Drywood Termites – College of Agriculture & Life Sciences, The University of Arizona
- Florida Dark-Winged Subterranean Termite by University of Florida Entomology
- Eastern Subterranean Termites – by Penn State Department of Entomology