About Termites and Their Biology

Termites are one of the more common insects that can invade a home, causing damage. Termites are actually part of the roach order known as Blattodea. In their relationship with roaches, termites are the most closely related to wood-eating roaches. Looking at slightly older information on termites will show them in the order Isoptera, but this is now their suborder. The change to the same order as roaches, Blattodea, was based on research that concluded termites are social cockroaches. Within the discussion of termites, the suborder Isoptera has 50 species in North America alone and over 2,600 around the world. Most termites are found in sub-tropic and tropic regions. Despite recent changes in classification, termites have been around for an incredibly long time, with fossils containing them dating back more than 130 million years.

Termite Appearance
Termites are easily identifiable if you are familiar with their biological traits. They have six legs and their antennas are beady and point straight. These sit on large heads. Instead of distinct body segmentation like that found on some insects, termites just have a ribbed texture without that type of separation. Termites tend to be pale yellow to pale white in color. Swarms may appear darker in color, similar to ants. You can tell adult termite and adult flying ants apart since adult termites have wings that are the same size. You can tell that there are termites in your home if you notice fecal remains. These are pellets that tend to be wood-colored. Habitat of Termites
Termites can be found all over the world, but as mentioned, they tend to be most prevalent in warmer climates, such as the tropics or sub-tropics. Termites also tend to do well along coasts and in warm, moist lowlands. To give an idea of the preference of termites for warmer climates, keep in mind that there are 10 species of termites in Europe and Africa alone has more than 1,000 species. That being said, there are some species of termites found in North America that have adapted to live in colder temperatures. This is why you will find termites throughout the United States, even if you live towards the north of the country. There are more than 50 different termite species in North America, but the three most common are subterranean, dry wood, and damp wood termites. Subterranean termites cause under 75 to 80 percent of the ecological damage from these insects. Dry wood termites cause about 20 to 25 percent of the damage and damp wood termites cause between 0 and 5 percent.

Termite Reproduction
During the summers, queen and king termites will swarm in large groups. These groups tend to feature thousands of termites, all of which are in search of mates. Upon finding a mate, the termites will participate in a courtship dance that is fairly mild. From there, they start a colony of their own. The king termite will assist the queen with her labor during fertilization and gestation. Within the first year that she lays eggs, queen termites will lay at least a hundred, if not thousands, of eggs daily. That being said, some queens may produce 30 or fewer eggs daily, but those eggs hatch into larger termites. At the other end, some queens may produce more than 10,000 eggs daily. Both the male and female termites care for the early generations of termites. By the later generations, the new colony will have enough worker termites to assist.

Young termites hatch into larvae eventually. The determination of whether they become soldiers or workers is based on the temperatures and pheromones by the eggs. Both soldiers and workers are sterile and can be either female or male. Workers take care of the labor for the colony, including feeding, caring for the young, and foraging. New colonies grow in massive numbers for the first five or so years. At this point, the queen will lay eggs for the first young queens and kings, known as alates. Those alates will mature and leave to begin their own reproductive cycle during the summer.

Life Cycle of Termites
The process of development that termites go through is known as incomplete metamorphosis or a hemimetabolous life cycle. As mentioned in the reproduction section, termites can develop into soldiers, workers, or reproductive termites. These are known as the three caste types for termites. The life cycle of termites begins within an egg, which then hatches into a termite nymph or young termite larvae. From there, it transitions into an older nymph. At this stage, the presence of termite pheromone cues, as well as social and environmental factors, will determine whether the termite becomes a supplementary reproductive termite, a worker, or a soldier. The larvae will molt several times as it matures, typically doing so three different times at a minimum. In most cases, there are between 5 and 13 nymph instars before the termite reaches its full maturity. The fact that termites have several nymph stages means that they are paurometabolous.

If the larva becomes a soldier or worker, it will remain at this point of the termite life cycle until death. If it is a secondary reproductive termite or reproductive alate, it will continue through the life cycle. Eventually, it will become the king or queen of a new colony and begin the life cycle anew with eggs. In terms of length of life, queen termites have a very long lifespan, averaging about 25 years, if not longer. Most other types of termites live only a fraction of this time, between 12 and 24 months.

Specific Features of Each Termite Caste
To take a closer look at the biology of termites, compare the features of each caste of termites. Worker termites account for about 90 to 95 percent of the colony. They are blind, wingless, and sterile and can be female or male. Instead of pale white, worker termites have uncolored, soft exoskeletons. The typical lifespan of a worker termite is about two years. Solider termites account for about 1 to 3 percent of the colony. Like workers, soldier termites are blind, wingless, and typically do not have pigment. They are soft, but their head area is modified to include powerful mandibles that they use for defense. Another defense mechanism of soldier termites is the secretion of a toxin from their heads. Soldiers tend to live about one or two years. There are typically only a handful of mature reproductive adults in a termite colony, 1 percent or less of the entire colony. Each queen will typically mate with five to ten kings during her lifetime. Most colonies only have one queen, although larger ones may have more.

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