Eastern subterranean termites
Termites are little creatures that invoke big worry in homeowners, and rightfully so – billions of dollars are spent each year on termite control. While there are many species of termites that feed on the wood of man-made structures, the eastern subterranean termite, Reticulitermes flavipes, is responsible for most of the termite damage.
Subterranean termites require a high moisture environment and are usually limited to having contact with the soil. They build mud tubes when foraging in areas that are dry or exposed to the elements. These tubes not only protect the termites from dehydrating, they also protect them from being preyed upon by tiny predators. Mud tubes are a sure sign of termite activity.
Fences, paper, books, lumber, baseball bats, furniture, tool handles… if it’s wood, it’s a potential food source. Termites have bacteria and protozoa in their digestive tract that allow them to eat and digest wood. Without these microbes, the termites would die, regardless of how much wood they ate. Every time a termite sheds its skin to grow bigger (a process called molting), it loses the lining of its gut and its wood-digesting microbes. To get these microbes back into their system, they must share regurgitated meals from the mouths of other workers… either that, or they must eat the droppings of their nestmates. Both are viable options!
Subterranean termites have castes that are specialized in the work they perform. The workers, which are pale and blind, are the workhorses of the colony. Workers can be either male or female. They reach maturity in about a year, can live for several years, and are sterile and cannot reproduce. Their main duty is to forage and find wood.
The soldiers, which have hardened heads and elongated mandibles, protect the colony from predators like ants. Their mandibles are so disproportionately large that they cannot feed or groom themselves, so they must rely on their worker nestmates to care for them. In times of food shortage, the soldiers are the first to succumb to starvation. The soldiers have rectangular heads.
The primary reproductives, called alates or swarmers, are dark in color, have eyes (unlike the workers and soldiers), and can fly. They emerge en masse in the spring to find love and start new colonies. After mating, the reproductive pair break off their wings and find a suitable place in the soil to burrow and begin their new life. The founding male is called the king, and the female is called the queen. The queen will forage and perform worker-like roles when the colony is young, but once she has the help of workers, her only job will be to lay eggs. Mature queens have distended abdomens which make it difficult for them to move and groom themselves. The workers feed and groom the queen. They also move the eggs and care for them until hatching.
There are also secondary and tertiary reproductives which look more like workers than like queens. They are capable of laying eggs but at a slower rate than the queen. In mature colonies, these reproductives can contribute significantly to the growth of a colony.
Lainé, L.V.; Wright, D.J. (2003). “The life cycle of Reticulitermes spp. (Isoptera: Rhinotermitidae): what do we know?”. Bulletin of Entomological Research. 93 (04): 267–278. doi:10.1079/BER2003238. Accessed February 2018.