Importance of a termite life cycle (Learn them to thwart termites)


If you have discovered a termite infestation in your home, chances are that your house guests have been living with you a lot longer than you expect. The termite queen is one of the longest living insects in the world.

She can live up to a decade, if the environmental conditions are right. The queen does not spend her time idly, she uses those ten years to rapidly reproduce and increase her family size.

Termite families are called colonies and are highly organized into a cast system where individual termites have specific jobs and abilities. This type of organization is known as eusocial and is the most organized form of animal societies. Ants, bees, and wasps are other examples of eusocial insects.

Not all termites are capable of reproduction, therefore the termite life cycle begins with the queen. The young termites that are destined to reproduce start their journey into adult termite life with a pair of wing buds. Over several months, the buds transforms into wings capable of carrying the young virgin queens on their one and only mating flight. 

This is the only time a queen leaves her home. She sets out only to find males from other colonies that are capable of reproduction. She will mate with as many males as she can find. After she has mated sufficiently her body becomes heavy and she finds a place to settle in and call home. Here she loses her wings and starts to lay eggs. This will be her job until she dies. The worker termites care for her and her young to support the efforts.

The larva of a termite remains in the egg for approximately 1 month. When the young termite emerges it is called a nymph. The young termite is very similar to its parents in appearance, unlike other insects that emerge as a worm like grub and have a metamorphosis period. 

A termite nymph instead has several moltings or shedding of its external body. This is commonly referred to as an incomplete metamorphosis. A termite nymph relies heavily on adult worker termites as it develops. The worker termites help the nymphs remove the hard exoskeleton with each molting phase, by chewing through the hard exterior. During the molting phase a nymph ends up taking on one of three specific adult roles; worker, soldier or alate.

Worker: It takes the nymph approximately 7 molts to become a full adult worker termite. This adult termite looks like the nymph termite, only larger and stronger. The worker termites build the structure of the colony, organize, tend to the queen and young termites.

Soldier: It takes the nymph several more molts to become a full adult soldier termite. The soldier termites take on a yellow and brown coloring. Soldiers develop a larger head and strong, large mandibles. The soldier termite’s sole purpose is to defend the colony from outside threats and invaders.

Alate: These are the termites capable of reproduction. Both male and female termites can become alates. This is the longest molting process and takes several months to complete. Alate termites develop wings and are capable of becoming the new parent termites of the colony, or they may leave and start a new colony. Some colonies may have more than one egg laying queen.

The most interesting element of the termite life cycle is the role that pheromones play. The journey a nymph takes into adulthood relies fully on the various pheromone levels in the colony. If the colony is low on any particular caste of termite, pheromone levels will reflect this and the nymphs will have a higher rate of producing the type of adult termite that is lacking.

Further more, if there are not enough nymphs to produce the required amount of soldiers or the queen dies and the colony needs alates, fully developed worker termites can actually molt into these two other types of adult termites. However, soldiers and alates can not change in to other forms of adult termites.

Termites feed mostly on plant matter, usually in the form of wood. A colony of termites can range in numbers from several hundred individuals to several millions. The large number of feeding individuals is what causes the structural damage to homes and devastates crops. If you are noticing signs of termites in your home, chances are that you already have a large colony which has been present for several years growing in number daily. You may even have more than one colony.

When you first notice signs of structural damage or see termites in or around your home you need to take action right away to protect your property. If you have not seen any termites it would be best to defend your home from an infestation from ever occurring. Taking preventative measures is the smartest and safest route.

2 thoughts on “Importance of a termite life cycle (Learn them to thwart termites)”

  1. Hello! You mention that it takes a nymph termite approximately 7 molts to become a worker termite. I was wondering how long each of these molts sessions take? Subsequently, how long until a nymph becomes a “mature” worker termite?

    • Hi Scott, great question. I will be honest with you, I am not well educated in the intricacies of the termite molting process. However, here are the basics of what I found out. The subterranean termite molting process is not yet well understood amongst scientists because subterranean termites are simply not very easy to observe. According to the study, Behavioral and Histological Observations of the Molting Process of the Formosan Subterranean Termites the molting process was measured through a division of four phases. The first phase which included the abdominal breach took around 15 minutes for termites in groups. The second phase which started with an expansion of the abdominal breach, the termite will roll to its side and pull its legs out. This took just over 5 minutes for termites in groups. The third phase involves the termite pulling their antennae and mandibles out of their old cuticle which took around 6 minutes for groups of termites. The fourth phase involves the “new” termite emerging from their former self which was completed in around 3 minutes for groups of termites. So in total it appears the molting process took around 29 minutes. What I did see that was interesting, was that termites who were molting with the help of other termites (they often help each other pull the old exoskeleton off) finished the process faster than those who molted without the help of their peers. Termites who molted alone took around 67 minutes. Termites also go through a phase pre-molting where they appear to fast from eating.


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