Termites 101: A Guide to Recognizing the Opponent
Economic Impact, the cold hard facts
It is estimated that each year termites inflict around $30 billion in damage to man-made structures and crops in the United States alone and the average bill for repairing termite damage to a home is approximately $3,000 dollars (US). Since this pest more than any other is capable of inflicting significant damage to property before their presence is often noticeable enough to be detected, vigilance and a thorough knowledge of this most destructive of invasive insects is mandatory for any homeowner concerned with safeguarding their investment.
The most effective way to fight any enemy is to know him, a truism perhaps but never more apt than when faced with the news that your property is threatened by that most aggressive and pernicious of pests, the termite. There are some basic termite facts which every homeowner should be aware in order to protect their homes.
Termites have a well defined and important role to play in any ecosystem, they are part of the process by which organic matter is broken down and returned to the soil to renew and enrich it. There are approximately 4,000 types of termites; however only about ten percent of the known species are considered “economically significant” or in simpler terms: destructive to human property and crops.
Termites are what the scientists call “eusocial”. In plain language that means that like bees and ants they live in dense populations called colonies with social and work roles organized in decentralized caste structures. Colonies can contain populations numbering in the millions.
The social order and division of labor within a colony are hierarchical and divided into three major termite forms: reproductives, soldiers and workers.
Understanding the Life Cycle
Reproductives, also known as “Alates” are the winged forms of the organism. They are often mistaken for flying ants. The reproductives pair off, establish colonies, and begin egg production—a phase of metamorphosis in which they lose their wings. Because of their similarity to flying ants, their invasion of structures is often dismissed and proactive measures not undertaken when their presence has first been noted. This allows the subterranean establishment of the colony to begin and thrive. By the time structural damage is noted, the colony is generally already massive. While colonies are started by a single alate, as the size of the colony grows and matures, the original pairing is often augmented by several other reproductives, or secondary queens depending on the type of termite species. The founding queen however maintains control of the colony through the release of pheromones that regulate the reproduction of the other termite forms.
Soldier forms look similar to the workers, but are distinguished by their larger heads which have armor-like exterior and large jaws. The jaws make it impossible for soldier termites to feed themselves; they are fed by the workers. As may be inferred by the caste name, they are responsible for the protection and defense of the colony, the natural enemy of which is the ant. Soldier termites are a small percentage of the colony in terms of colony population.
Workers are the form of the insect which devours wood and other organic matter; their digestive systems contain a microbe that allows the breakdown of material that is indigestible to other life forms.
Workers are characterized by
• Soft bodies with a white or pale brown exterior—appearing similar to larval forms of other insects
• Body size from 1/16 to ½ inch in length
• They have a similar appearance to ants-are sometimes called “white ants” and are often misidentified as such.
• Workers forage, store food, maintain the nest, feed the soldiers and reproductives and tend the larval brood.
Workers are the most numerous caste and the class of termite that inflicts the property damage.
Types of Termites
Knowing your Species:
As noted above, of over 4000 species of termites only ten percent are considered to be economically impactful to the interests of human beings. Among those posing the greatest economic risk are the types of termites that produce “swarms” a stage of a colony’s development when in combination with favorable flight weather reproductives are released to form new colonies.
Subterranean Termites often release thousands of reproductives (also known in this context as “warmers”). Subterranean are most easily identified due to their great numbers as well as their tendency to actively swarm during day light hours, although Formosan termites which are classified as subterranean termites swarm primarily at night. This type of termite most often swarms in the spring.
Drywood Termites along with subterranean types of termites poses the highest risk to homeowners due to their ability to subsist on the drier wood found in dwelling construction. Drywood termites have significantly smaller swarms, sometimes numbering no more than 100 reproductives per swarm. Because their numbers are less dramatic, and their taste for housing grade wood is greatest, they are more insidious in their ability to invade structures relatively undetected. Drywood termites warm in the late summer and early fall months most typically.
Dampwood Termites are generally considered to be less threatening to homeowners due to their need for higher moisture content in the wood they digest than is generally found in home construction. They can and do, however, pose significant risks to crops and other structures that are often found surrounding homes, such as utility poles and fencing which can produce another kind of damage hazard for property owners. In wetter climates, it should be noted, this type of termite may still be able to infest dwellings and inflict significant damage, even though the relative size of dampwood termite colonies is often no more than a few thousand organisms in size. This type of termite swarms in the summer.
Our homes are the largest investment many of us will ever make. Knowing some basic facts about termites and being able to recognize types of termites can help us protect that investment.