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Termites are one of the most costly pests. They are known to cause billions of dollars worth of damage in the US alone each year. Their intricate way of living allows termites to silently devour the structural integrity of a building, allowing them to completely destroy a home in just two years if left undetected.

Termites are eusocial insects and belong to the same taxonomic order as cockroaches, (Blattodea). They were once classified in a separate order from cockroaches, but as a result of phylogenetic studies it has been discovered that they have evolved from close ancestors of cockroaches dating back to the Jurassic period.

What do termites look like?

The appearance of a termite, in terms of colour and size, changes between each species. Termites can vary in shades of white, brown, black, and sometimes look translucent in colour.

The overall appearance of termites is generally the same. Every termite has two straight antennae, six short legs, a thick waist, and a body which consists of two segments.

Depending on the class (caste) termites can differ in appearance from one another. For example, soldier termites have an enlarged jaw, whilst alates (flying termites) have a pair of equally sized wings.

How big are termites?

Termites can range in size depending on the species and caste. They are usually between 3mm and 25mm. The larger sized termites aren’t regarded as pests.

Termites with wings

Do termites have wings?

Yes they do, but not all of them. A termite's caste determines if it has wings or not. Like ants, termites have a winged form, known as alates. Their job is to leave the nest to breed and start a new colony. Winged termites are sexually developed male and female termites.

Do termites fly?

Yes, but only for a short period of time. Unlike flying insects such as mosquitoes and wasps, termites aren’t constant flyers. Termites will only fly during their swarming season (usually spring time). Shortly after they have mated they will discard their wings and return to their crawling state.

Ants vs termites

Termitesespecially the alates (winged termites), can often get mistaken for ants. Both insects are similar in size, appearance (to a certain extent). However, they are completely different creatures and have a different impact on a property.

You can tell the difference between ants and termites by:

  • Antennae - the antennae on ants is elbowed and termites have a straight antennae
  • Waist - ants have a thin and narrow waist and termites have a broad waist
  • Wings - the fore wings of ants are longer than their hind wings and the wings of termites are equal in length

White ants

Termites can often be mistaken for white ants. It is important to know that there is no such thing as white ants. White ants are in fact termites.

Termite life cycle

Termite eggs

The first stage of a termite's life cycle is the egg. A new queen’s first batch will usually contain around two dozen eggs.

Although they are large enough to be visible to the naked eye, they are usually laid in sheltered areas such as wall cavities and in underground tunnels, meaning they are rarely seen by humans.

As termite eggs near their hatching period they will increase in size. Termite eggs usually hatch after 26-30 days, but this can vary depending on environmental factors such as temperature.

What do termite eggs look like?

Termite eggs are small and oval shaped. They are white/translucent in colour and resemble caviar, though a lot smaller.

Termite larvae

Newly hatched termites appear in the form of larvae. At this early stage, the termite larvae have yet to be given a caste and lack the ability to feed themselves. Instead, they rely on nourishment provided by the king who feeds them through his saliva and the mature workers, who feed them regurgitated food.

Although very small, termite larvae resemble the appearance of adult worker termites, shedding their skin multiple times during this growing process before assuming a permanent role in the colony in one of the 3 castes.

Termite nymph

Termite larvae which are destined to become the next generation of termite kings and queens will enter another stage before reaching adulthood, the nymph stage.

Termite nymphs may either develop into secondary queens within the colony, laying their own eggs, assisting the queen in the growth of the colony, or they may develop into the swarming, reproductive caste of termites, alates.

Adult termite

Chemical signals distributed by the queen determine which caste the termite larvae will belong to. This is usually determined during the final moults as they progress into adulthood.

There are 3 castes of termites, each with their own unique role in the colony. Termites will stay in their caste for their entire life. ach caste varies in appearance and the development of these features takes place as the termite larvae moult.

How long do termites live?

The life span of a termite can vary depending on a number of external factors. However, on average, worker and soldier termites will live for around 1-2 years, whilst a termite queen can live for up to 15 years if conditions are favourable.

Termite colony

Like ants, termites are social insects. They live and congregate in large colonies governed by a queen. The size of a termite colony can differ greatly depending on how old the colony is and where it is located.

Termite castes

Within a colony, each termite has its own role to play. They are separated into three different castes, with each caste having their own duties to fulfill.

Termite caste:

  • Workers
  • Soldiers
  • Alates

Worker termites

Worker termites make up a large part of a termite colony. They are the most destructive members feasting on the wooden elements of buildings. If you spot live termites, they are likely to be worker termites.

Most worker termites are blind and use their antennae to see. They are responsible for foraging for food and bringing it back to the nest, caring for other cates, looking after the Queen, eggs, and nymphs as well as other duties in the colony such as repairing and expanding the nest.

Soldier termites

Soldier termites are responsible for protecting the colony. They are defined by their enlarged head and mandibles. They lack the ability to feed themselves and rely on the worker termites to provide their food.

Soldiers are the first line of defense against an attack. Sometimes the Queen termite might decide more soldier termites are . In this case, some worker termites will develop into the soldier caste. When the winged termites take flight, the soldier termites will often guard the entrance to the nest to ensure they depart safely.

Alate termites

Developing from termite nymphs, alate termites are the reproduction fraction of the termite colony. They have developed a set of equally sized wings and leave the nest during spring when conditions are favourable to participate in mating swarms. After they have successfully mated they land, shed their wings and begin to set up their new colony.

Termite queens

Termite queens are an integral part of a termite colony, they are responsible for ensuring the growth of the colony by constantly laying new eggs, around one egg every 3 seconds.

During the first batch of eggs, the queen will look after and tend to the needs of the young termites. However, once they have reached maturity these duties turn over to the worker termites whilst the queen focuses on laying eggs.

As time progresses the termite queen will increase in size to facilitate the constant supply of termite eggs, her abdomen starts to stretch and becomes translucent, reaching the size of an index finger. This renders the queen immobile forcing her to rely on the worker termites to both feed and clean her as well as look after the termite eggs and larvae.

Termite species

How many termites in a colony?

The size of a termite colony all depends on the species. It can vary anywhere from two individuals to 1 million termites depending on the age of the colony and if conditions are favourable.

There are around 2,750 different species of termites. Some species have little to no involvement with mankind, inhabiting areas in the wild contributing to their environment’s ecosystem, whilst others inhabit urbanised areas damaging properties.

There are 3 main types of termites that are considered pests, these are:

  • Subterranean termites
  • Drywood termites
  • Dampwood termites

Subterranean termites

Subterranean termites are one of the most common found across the globe. These termites build their nests underground in the soil due to the high moisture levels. Subterranean termites live on a diet of softwood, and feed along the grain of the timber.

Due to their need for high moisture conditions, subterranean termites use mud tubes to navigate above the surface.

A key sign of subterranean termites is evidence of mud tubes along the foundations and floor joints of a property. These mud tubes are made from particles of soil, wood, saliva and fecal matter.

Formosan termites

Of the subterranean group of termites, the Formosan species is one of the most destructive. Often nicknamed the super-termite, these insects live in large colonies and consume wood at a rapid rate.

Formosan termite colonies can reach the size of several millions of inhabitants and consume as much as 400g of wood a day, severely damaging a structure in just three months. Although they are native to southern China they have quickly spread acrossthe world due to global trade.

Drywood termites

Drywood termites are larger than subterranean termites. Their colonies consist of around a couple of thousand individuals which is considerably lower than other groups of termites.

Drywood termites build their nests within wooden structures and are less dependent on high moisture levels. Their feces come in pellet form (often referred to as frass) which they remove from their galleries by pushing them through small gaps in the surface.

Drywood termites feast upon both hard and softwood, and like subterranean termites feed along the grain. Drywood termite alates shed their wings quickly after swarming and their larvae usually pass through 4-7 instars (a phase between two periods of moulting in the development of an insect) before fully maturing.

Dampwood termites

Similar to drywood termites, dampwood termites get their name from the types of wood they infest. Dampwood termites are often found in and around damp and decaying timber.

Like drywood termites, dampwood termites are generally much larger than subterranean termites. Dampwood termite alates are around 25.4mm in size (wings included) and swarm between January and October.

Although dampwood termites build their nests inside pieces of timber rather than in the ground, they prefer areas with high moisture content, hence the affiliation with damp and decaying timber.

There is no worker caste within a dampwood colony. Instead the duties usually carried out by worker termites are performed by the nymphs.

Termite nest

Like other social insects, termite colonies exist within a nest. Depending on the type and species, termites will build their nests in different locations. Subterranean termites prefer to build their nests underground whilst drywood and dampwood termites nests are found in the pieces of timber they are infesting.

Some species of termites in Africa and Australia build huge mounds that can reach heights up to 17 feet and outlive the termites who created them. The oldest termite mound is said to be 2000 years old.

Termite nests are examples of complex architecture. They are designed as a series of nest networks connected by galleries. Each compartment serves a purpose, from housing the queen to storing food. As the colony grows, the worker termites will expand the nest to house the increasing population. Termites build their nests in such a way that the air flow isn’t restricted.

What do termites eat?

The common understanding of a termite's diet is that it consists of wooden materials. This is a slight misconception as it is actually an organic compound called cellulose. Cellulose is an important structural compound of the primary cell wall of green plants and can be found in wood, paper and cotton, to name a few.

How do termites eat?

Termites eat organic compounds such as wood, paper and cotton by breaking off easily digestible pieces using their mandibles.

They digest the cellulose using symbiotic micro-organisms which live in their gut. These microorganisms produce an enzyme called cellulase and helps convert the cellulose into sugar.

Termites use sugar for nourishment. Worker termites will also store and use the digested cellulose to feed the soldiers, queens, and immature termites in the colony.

Termite swarm

Termite swarms mark the start of termite season. They happen once a year and is when the sexually developed termites (alates) leave the nest to mate. This is often referred to as “nuptial flight” as is practised by other insects such as ants and bees.

During a termite swarm, male and female winged termites leave their nests and take flight. During this process the alates from other colonies congregate together to breed. During the initial flight the males and females from a colony will scatter to ensure outcrossing and the female alates release pheromones to attract potential males. Female flying termites often try to escape the males to ensure only the fastest and strongest males will breed.

Once completed, the termites will land, shed their wings and start a new colony, becoming the new kings and queens.

When do termites swarm?

Termites usually swarm during the spring time, but this can differ depending on the species. Swarms usually happen when it is warm and following a rain shower.

Different colonies of the same species of termite will often use environmental cues to synchronize their swarming patterns, this helps ensure the winged termites will breed with others from different nests, avoiding the potential for inbreeding.

Signs of termites

Identifying a termite problem can be quite difficult. There have been countless occasions where a termite infestation has gone unnoticed, only to be discovered when it was too late.

How to tell if you have termites

Although spotting the signs of termites can be quite difficult, it is not impossible. Identifying live insects is very uncommon due to their nesting habits. However, there are some common signs of termites which can help confirm if a termite problem exists in your property.

Termite droppings

Termite droppings or “frass” is a common sign of drywood termites. Whilst infesting a piece of timber, drywood termites will deposit their feces through small holes in their galleries. The deposited frass will be evident to the human eye in small piles around infested pieces of wood, and closely resemble sawdust. Termite droppings differ from sawdust in both colour and shape. Termite frass come in circular pellets and multiple colours of a brown shading.

Termite tubes

Mud tubes are a common sign of subterranean termites. Due to the need of this group of termites for high moisture content and to keep away from sunlight, mud tubes are created to navigate between pieces of timber and the nest.

Subterranean termites create these mud tubes out of a mixture of soil, wood, saliva and feces. They are dark brown in colour and will be found along the foundations of a property as well as floor joints.

There are 4 types of mud tubes used by subterranean termites. They are:

  1. Working tubes: built along surfaces to connect the nest to food sources
  2. Exploratory tubes: rise from the soil but do not connect to any wooden structures
  3. Drop tubes: built from infested wood back to the nest
  4. Swarm tubes: used by flying termites to exit the nest to swarm

Discarded wings

Discarded termite wings in and around your property could be a potential sign of termites. After a termite swarm, the discarded wings from the flying termites can often be found littered across a property.

Before constructing the new colony and nest the fertilised termites will shed their wings. These wings are translucent in colour with a yellowish outline and can usually be found near windows, doors and light fixtures, and can usually be found in a pile.

Finding termite wings doesn’t necessarily mean there is a termite infestation in your property.

Discarded wings would mean a potential infestation nearby.

Termite damage

Termites can inflict an excessive amount of damage onto a property, especially if they go unnoticed. The damage can be inflicted to multiple areas of a property.

Areas prone to termite damage:

Termites can infest and damage a vast range of areas on your property, from your backyard to inside your property..

As a termite's diet is largely reliant on cellulose multiple areas of your home are at risk. There have been cases where termites have consumed both clothes and money. Below are some of the common areas in which termite damage can be found:

  • Windows and doors (including frames).
  • Foundations
  • Walls
  • Ceiling (beams and rafters)
  • Garden mulch
  • Trees
  • Fences
  • Furniture

What does termite damage look like?

To the untrained eye, identifying the presence of termite damage can be a difficult task. When consuming a piece of wood, termites inflict damages to the inside, burrowing tunnels as they devour the timber. Because of this, termites will leave a soft, thin veneer on the outside.

At first glance an infested piece of wood will not be evident, further inspection is needed to confirm termite damage.

Termite damage signs:

  • Hollow sound — Tapping on a piece of timber and hearing a hollow sound can point towards termite damage, due to their eating habits of consuming the inside.
  • Weak timber — Termite damage makes wood become very weak. This gives the infested timber a squishy and soft texture and becomes very brittle.
  • Cracks — The weakness of termite infested wood will cause the material to crack and start to crumble away.
  • Stiff doors and windows — Termite damage to window frames and doors will cause them to become very stiff and difficult to open. This is because the termites tunneling will force the frames to warp and become irregular and misshapen.
  • Distorted/Cracked paint — Termites don’t eat paint, but they will consume the wood behind it. This will cause paint to become cracked and distorted.
  • Sagging floors — Floors subject to termite damage will become very weak. This will result in saggy floorboards, which can sometimes start to buckle. Hardwood floor slats can start to pop-up, whilst laminate floors can start to bubble.

Repairing termite damage

Repairing termite damage should only be done once an infestation has successfully been removed. Although it is rare, there are some instances where termites have damaged a property beyond repair.

Repairing termite damage can vary depending on the type of damage inflicted onto a property. Termite damage could mean replacing a garden fence or even rebuilding a wall.

Termite inspection

Regular termite inspections are one of the vital ways to protect a property from termites. The early detection of termites can be a very powerful tool in preventing termites, avoiding the possible financial burdens of repairing termite damage.

Termite inspections require the help of a pest control professional (exterminator) to inspect your property for termites. A termite inspection involves a thorough check of an entire property and the attached structures for termites. The termite exterminator will investigate a property for the common signs of termites such as mud tubes, frass, and termite damage.

After the termite inspection is successfully carried out a detailed review will be provided of what was discovered during the investigation and will feature the recommended treatment, if any, to help protect the property from termites.

Termite control

Getting rid of termites is a procedure that requires professional intervention. The removal of termites will vary depending on a range of factors such as: property type; termite species; and size of an infestation.

Termite treatment

The best way to get rid of termites is with the help of a professional exterminator.. Pest control companies have a range of termite treatment options available to assist in the removal and the prevention of these crawling insects.

The 3 main types of termite treatments available are:

  • Termite monitoring and baiting
  • Termite barriers
  • Chemical termite treatment

Termite monitoring and baiting

Termite monitoring and baiting works as both a prevention and treatment service for termites. This termite treatment works by placing bait stations around the perimeter of a property. These stations not only detect termite activity but also help remove them.

Once a termite has taken the bait, it will bring it back to the colony for its members to feed on. The bait not only affects the worker termite who first consumed it but the rest of the colony too, helping to eliminate it. This provides an excellent solution to termites by eradicating a colony before it becomes a problem for a property.

Termite monitoring and baiting provides a termite treatment option which causes almost no inconvenience to property owners and inhabitants. It is unobtrusive as it doesn’t alter the appearance of a property, requires no drilling, and the routine checks by your pest controller to check for signs of termites ensures peace of mind.

Termite baiting is not a quick fix, as it gradually eradicates a termite problem by reducing the size of a colony until it can no longer support itself.

Termite barrier

Termite barriers come in two forms: Physical and chemical. Both forms of termite treatment are effective solutions to preventing and removing termites.

Physical termite barriers

Physical termite barriers are an effective termite solution for new properties. This termite treatment option can only be applied during the building process of a home or extension.

Physical termite barriers involve laying down a barrier in the same way a moisture layer is added before applying the concrete slab. The barriers are made from sheets of material which are overlapped and sealed with an adhesive. The barriers are taped down using a quality cloth tape and are laid as either a complete coverage underneath the slab or around the perimeter of the slab and pipe penetrations. The application of the barrier depends on the property and the owner's requirements.

A stand alone concrete slab is not an effective solution to preventing termites as they can easily slip through the cracks and air holes. Laying down a physical termite barrier can successfully protect a property from termites by eliminating the entry points.

Chemical termite barriers

Chemical termite barriers involve applying a liquid chemical to the ground. This is done either under concrete flooring or around the perimeter of a property. Chemical termite barriers can be applied at any time of a property's life and doesn’t need to be applied during construction. This enables it to be an effective termite solution for any property.

This termite treatment does require some drilling to enable the product to be applied under slabs and flooring. There are numerous types of chemicals available depending on your property and the level of protection needed. Some chemicals are used to exterminate termites whilst others can be used as a deterrent.

Chemical termite barriers are able to provide protection against termites for 10 years depending on which product is used.

Chemical termite treatment

Chemical termite treatments take the more traditional route of pest control by eradicating termites through the application of an insecticide spray to a property. The spray is a liquid termiticide and can be used to both eradicate a termite problem and prevent an infestation.

The termite spray is usually carried out on the exterior but can be used indoors and is suitable for all types of properties. This form of termite treatment may require some drilling to directly apply the remedy to infested areas and the level of application depends on where the treatment is being applied as well as the infestation level.