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What Termite Larvae in Your Home Really Means…

Termites follow a cycle of insect life that begins at the egg. What hatches from the egg is called a larva, although some sources will also refer to newly hatched termites as “nymphs”. This is due to the fact that larva usually refers to the newly hatched of metamorphic insects such as flies or butterflies. Metamorphic insect larvae are different in appearance from the adult stage – termite young are primarily smaller, whiter, softer worker adults – and have interim phases, often the “pupa” stage which termites do not have. However, “larva” may also refer to newly hatched insects so this is not an incorrect use of the term.

Termite eggs are too small for the naked eye to see, and when termite larva first hatch, they are the size of the egg. Most termite larvae are about one tenth of an inch big and spend their time inside the colony, so in the case of an infestation, a homeowner is not likely to see the larvae. However, termite larvae play an integral role in termite colonies in replenishing their workforce and numbers; though tiny, termite larvae may consist of large portions of the colony as they grow and become integrated into termite work.

The Life of a Larva

Once eggs are laid, termite workers carry them off to incubation areas to hatch. Eggs hatch within a few weeks – perhaps a month – from when they were laid. After hatching, the new larvae are then carried away to a nursery where workers feed and groom them until they are old enough to be directed into a caste. Larvae molt – shed their exoskeletons – several times as they grow. They will reach adulthood after multiple moltings.

Once the caste is decided, the larva will develop into an adult and begin its new role. Some molting may be required. If the larva is to become any of the reproductive castes, the larva will actually have one more interim step, becoming an “nymph”. While larvae may also be referred to as “nymphs”, during this period, the termite develops wing nubs and it is a distinct period from the hatchling as only reproductive termites will become nymphs. Depending on the type of reproductive termite, the nymph may or may not actually develop wings, or even keep the wing nubs. The nymph will then develop into a full-on reproductive termite, lay eggs, and start the cycle over again.

What Are Castes and How Are They Decided?

The castes are as follows:

  1. Worker Termites
  2. Soldier Termites
  3. Reproductive Termites
    • Alate (future king or queen)
    • Neotenic (supplementary)

The caste that a termite joins is determined by what is needed by the colony. Most termites will become worker termites, but some will become reproductive and a fewer amount will become soldiers. If the colony is quite large, many will become alates as the initial pairing process for alates usually proves fatal for them. A larva’s role is not set in stone after it joins its new caste; adult termites can be directed to change to a different role if it becomes necessary. This means that even if all reproductive castes are wiped out, the infestation is not necessarily defeated.

A termite larva will be directed to a caste by pheromones – chemical signals – released by the king or queen. The larva may change development before complete if directed by these pheromones. Most likely, the larva who becomes a soldier will have become a worker termite first and later be directed to convert into a soldier. On becoming a soldier, the termite will develop a hard head with immense mandibles that are powerful for fighting, although they make it impossible for the termite to eat without assistance from a worker. Larva that become nymphs will usually become neotenic; there are secondary and tertiary neotenic termites, the former of which are as “back-up queens” and lays eggs to supplement the colony’s size, the latter which directly assist the queen in her egg-laying. Tertiary reproductive termites do not even have wing nubs. Alate will leave the colony once developed and begin new colonies, becoming the king and queen of that new colony.

How To Kill Larvae

While most methods for killing termites will focus on the colony as a whole, or on adults specifically, there is one remedy that will target larvae: nematodes. Nematodes are small, non-segmented worms that are parasites to many household pests. Nematodes should be kept cool and planted somewhere where they will not be damaged by UV rays from the sun. When nematodes are released into termite nests, they target larvae, burrowing into their bodies. The larvae die within forty-eight hours. Without any progeny, this may be an effective way to wipe out an infestation, but note that termites may live up to two years and that the queen may live for at least ten. As termites do not sleep, the damage that they can wreak before they die out would still be quite costly.

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