Termites have existed for at least 130 million years, descended from a cockroach-like ancestor. Termites, cockroaches, and all mantids share a common ancestor in an insect that crawled the Earth about 300 million years ago. The fossil record’s earliest termite specimen dates back to the Cretaceous period. A termite holds the record for the oldest example of mutualism between organisms, too. A 100-million-year old termite with a ruptured abdomen was encased in amber, along with the protozoan parasites.
Termites live in social colonies, usually in the ground or in wood. Members of the order Isoptera include over 2,000 described species, about 40 of which inhabit the U.S. Most termite species are found in the warm, moist environments of the tropics. The predominate families in the order include:
- Rhinotermitidae – subterranean termites
- Termopsidae – rottenwood termites
- Kalotermitidae – dampwood and drywood termites
- Termitidae – higher termites
- Hodotermitidae – harvester termites
Termites can destroy your property. Termites are decomposers. Termites break down tough plant fibers, recycling dead decaying trees into new soil. These hungry insects are vital to the health of forests. As they tunnel, termites also aerate and improve the soil. We build our homes from termite food; wood!
Termites break down cellulose with the help of microorganisms in their digestive systems. Termites feed on plants directly or the fungus which grows on decaying plant material. Either way, they must be able to digest tough plant fibers, or cellulose. The termite stomach and intestinal tract is loaded with microorganisms capable of breaking down cellulose. There is a symbiotic benefit to both the termite and the microorganisms living within their hosts. The termite houses the bacteria and protozoa, and harvests the wood. In return, the microorganisms digest the cellulose for the termites.
Termites must feed on each other’s feces. Termites aren’t born with all that bacteria. Before they can consume wood, termites must obtain a supply of microorganisms for their digestive tracts. They engage in a practice known as trophallaxis, where the digestive microorganisms are acquired by consuming each other’s feces. Termites must also periodically resupply themselves after they molting thus this continues throughout the termite lifecycle.
The male (king) termite stays with the queen, fertilizing her eggs as needed. He also shares parental duties with the queen, helping her feed their young predigested food.
Termite workers and soldiers are almost always blind. In most species, both workers and soldiers in the termite colony are blind. Since they spend their lives in the confines of dark, damp nests, there is no need to develop a functional eye. Reproductive termites are the only termites that require sight, since they must fly to find mates and new nest sites.
When termite soldiers detect a threat, they tap a warning signal to the colony by banging their heads against the gallery walls to send warning vibrations throughout the colony.
Chemical cues guide most communication in the termite colony by use of pheromones. Termites leave scent trails to guide other workers using a special gland on their chest. Each colony produces a unique scent, identified by a chemical on their cuticles. In some species, the queen can even control the growth and role of her young by feeding her pheromone-laden feces.
Both new kings and queens can fly. New reproductive termites are winged, and can fly. These young kings and queens, called alates, leave the colony and fly out in search of mates, frequently in large swarms. Each royal pair of king and queen emerge from the swarm together and finds a new place to found a new colony. Their wings then break off and they settle down in their new home to raise their offspring.
Termites spend a great deal of time grooming each other. Good hygiene is important to their survival, as it helps prevent harmful parasites.
Sterile termite workers perform all the labor, building and maintaining nests, caring for the young and the queen. Soldier termites, defend the nest. In most species, the soldier’s specialized defensive structures is found in the head region, making the head very muscular.