What are Subterranean Termites?
Subterranean termites, the most common kind of termite found in the U.S., live in the soil. They can live just below the surface to as much as 12 feet down. Foraging territories may extend several hundred feet from the colony. Subterranean termites cause more damage each year than all combined natural disasters; fires, earthquakes and storms. They cause nearly one billion dollars a year in structural damage.
Why are they flying around?
Swarmer termites are usually the first visual indication that there are termites present. Before the swarmers take flight, environmental conditions must be just right. Environmental conditions are most favorable on warm, sunny, humid days. Other contributing factors include moisture levels inside and outside the colony, light conditions, and the barometric pressure. These conditions often occur on days after rain showers.
After a short flight, the wings break off and males and females pair off to establish a new colony. A sure sign that termites have swarmed is a pile of hundreds of these broken-off wings within a small area.
How is a new colony begun?
Since swarmer termites are so defenseless at this stage of their lives (after their wings break off), many couples do not survive due to natural death or death by natural enemies. Pairs that do survive end up making their own cells where they mate and lay eggs. This is how a colony is started, but it is important not to overemphasize the importance of the queen and king. They are the founders of a colony, but it is actually the supplementary reproductives that are responsible for the production of the majority of the eggs. For example, out of a colony of one million individuals, the queen may be responsible for 10,000 of the eggs. The supplementary reproductive termites are responsible for the remaining eggs.
What type of environment does a termite need?
Specific environmental conditions are needed for termites to survive. The key to these specific environmental conditions is moisture. Why, you may or may not be wondering, is moisture so important to these insects? Because all termite castes except swarmers are soft-bodied insects, they lose water rapidly upon exposure to dry air. Therefore, it is critical that a moisture source be present at all times for termites. To ensure this, they create “mud tubes” when they pass over exposed areas. Not only do these tubes provide a source of moisture, they also work to conceal the termites and protect them from their enemies– namely ants. Termites will always maintain contact with soil unless there is a constant above ground source of moisture.
Moisture also plays another role in the life of termites. Since the conditions in which termites nest are warm and moist, microorganisms are also encouraged to occupy this space, particularly fungi. Interdependence is created because the fungi provide a rich source of protein and vitamins that are essential to the existence of termites. In turn, fecal matter accumulation from termites helps to promote the growth of the fungi. In temperate zones, as the temperature starts to decline, the termites will burrow into the ground until they find conditions which are suitable to their temperature and humidity requirements. In the spring, colonies respond to changes in temperature and moisture and resume their positions near soil surfaces.
Another factor affecting suitable termite living conditions is the type of soil they flourish in. Subterranean termites generally prefer sandy soil over clay soil.
What are their feeding habits?
Believe it or not, different species of termites have different appetites for different woods. The eastern subterranean termite prefers loblolly pine while the Formosan termite prefers sugar maple. Condition of wood is another factor that affects the termites’ taste. Decayed wood is much more appetizing than sound wood. Termites increase the moisture content of wood to encourage its decay.
The major species of subterranean termites in the U.S. consumes wood at the rate of 2 to 3 percent of their body weight each day. At this rate, it would take the average eastern termite colony approximately 118 days to consume a one-foot length of 2×4 pine while an average Formosan colony could accomplish the same task in 19 days.
How do termites communicate?
Because termites are social insects, they need forms of communication so they can live and function together as a colony.
The most basic communication means in termite colonies is pheromone (chemical) communication. Each colony develops its own specific odor making it possible for any intruder, be it a termite from another termite colony, an ant, or some other natural enemy, to be instantly recognized as foreign as soon as it enters the colony. Alarm pheromones are triggered by the colony, which tell the soldiers to attack and kill the intruder. To further keep this intruder out of the colony, they will wall him/her off with fecal matter.
Another means of communication is sound. Workers and soldiers rapidly bang their heads against galleries or mud tubes as a warning of colony disturbance. Other termites of the colony will hear this and pick it up. This activity works much like the alarm pheromones to get the colony moving.
How do termites communicate?
Trophallaxis is the primary means of communication involving mutual exchange of nutrients and the transfer of food between colony members. By this method, termites exchange food from both their mouth and hindgut. Trophallaxis permits the efficient use of chemicals within a colony, distributes chemicals involved in caste regulation, enhances recognition of colony members, and transfers cellulose-digesting protozoans. When termites go through molting, they lose the protozoa they need for digesting wood along with all of their hindgut contents. Since they need the protozoa to continue living through digestion of cellulose-based materials, they must feed from the hindgut of other members of the colony. In this way, they get a new supply of protozoa.
Carpenter ants are the most common pests we exterminate. Several species exist in North America.