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Termite Life Cycle and Behaviortermite life cycle

Termites have over 2,000 different species which exists across the world, yet only about 50 species are found in the United States Alone. Classified into three main groups, (subterranean, drywood and dampwood)  each type of termite has the same basic structure--a reproductive king and queen and then all of the subordinates (which consists of worker termites and soldier termites) which work for the queen’s sustenance.

Among the insect world, termites have an exceptionally long lifespan compared to others, in particular the termite queen which can live at most up to 10 to 12 years. In contrast, the lifespan of a worker or soldier termite ranges between a year to as long as 5 years, depending upon the species and the environment where they created their habitat.

Termites undergo what is called an incomplete metamorphosis which differs from the complete metamorphosis which other social insects such as ants, bees and wasps go through. In an incomplete metamorphosis, the termite offspring which emerges from the egg will look basically like a miniature version of an adult termite. As they age they molt and shed skin until they grow in size into an adult termite. On the other hand, in a complete metamorphosis such as that of an ant, when they come out of an egg, they are grubby looking larvae and look nothing like an adult ant.

Recently born termites are called larvae but it is better to call them nymphs, due to larvae being more associated with the undeveloped grub-like appearance. Termite nymphs are very mobile when they come out of their shell; especially those in advanced instar stage. They can move around the nest at will, however, they are not able to perform any duties of the adult worker termites and would require nurturing from the workers before reaching adulthood.

The worker termite typically have a life cycle which can be divided into 3 stages:

  • Egg

  • Nymph

  • Adult

The duration of the egg cycle lasts about a month long as does the nymph stage if the climate is favorable for nymph growth. The adult stage of a worker termite can range between one year to several years as we mentioned earlier. This may differentiate slightly depending upon the termite species as well as external environmental factors.

The worker nymph stage usually comprises of about 7 molts or instars, in which the nymph slowly transitions little by little into adulthood. They molting process cannot be pulled off successfully without the help of adult worker termites, which aid the nymph in shedding their outer skin by chewing it off. However, there are species of drywood and dampwood termites which can sufficiently molt without any help.

In contrast to the worker nymph termites, the soldier nymph is a worker that goes through a few more stages of molting before reaching adult soldier status. Once they have transitioned into adult soldiers, they cannot revert back into the worker stage again. Reproductives (also known as alates) have a longer nymph stage than the other termite classes; hence more molts lasting several months.

All termite castes originate from the “default” worker instar, and the distribution of the castes in the colony are determined by circulating pheromones in the colony, and outside circumstances such as food supply and current caste population. For example, if many soldiers perished in combat with ants, the pheromone imbalance would work to restore the soldier population balance in the colony. It’s really quite fascinating how this occurs.

Termites can undergo regressive molts, which happens in alate nymphs, reverting them back to the worker stage, although this rarity seems mainly to occur in drywood/dampwood termites, and happens when the current reproductives of the colony release pheromones that prevent the nymphs from developing into reproductives themselves. The nymphs subsequently lose their wings and revert nto workers.

In the termite colonies that are able to produce secondary reproductives in the absence of the queen and king (like some drywood termites), workers may turn into reproductives capable of breeding and continuing the colony. So in these cases, workers who turn into secondary reproductives would have a major lifespan extension compared to the ordinary workers.

LEARN MORE: The Difference Between Ants and Termites

Termite Behavior

termite caste system

Termites are social insects which have among the most sophisticated family systems in the animal kingdom. Depending on the species, their colonies can be small to very large with hundreds of thousands of termites in any given colony. Termites within a colony all have defined roles with the universal goal being to satisfy the queen and grow and maintain the termite nest. 

Their main behavior consists of consuming and breaking down cellulose material ie. wood. No matter the species of termite, the roles within a colony are largely the same. There is a queen who reproduces new termites, soldier termites which work to protect the colony from external threats and worker termites who work to bring food to the nest and nourish the termite population. Here are the roles and classes of termites defined more in depth:

  • Reproductives: This is the highest class of termite and consists of a queen, a king and swarmer termites which leave the colony to grow the population. The king and queen are the founders of the colony and their main role is to grow the colonies numbers. The queen is known to produce many primary reproductives (called alates or swarmer termites) which have wings and fly out of the colony to start a new colony.

  • Soldiers: responsible for defending the colony from invaders, such as ants. They often have jagged mouthparts used for fending off intruders.

  • Workers: role consists of building and repairing mud tunnels and keeping the nest organized. They also are responsible for feeding other termites in the colony, caring for eggs, cleaning and maintaining the tunnel walls, and removing dead termites from the colony.

Foraging for food is a large part of the termites typical behavior day to day. Worker termites go out on foraging journeys which can cover large areas that can be quite far from their nest. A species of termite known as the formosan termite can travel up to 1.5 acres or distances of more than 300 feet in their search for food.

Many are surprised to note that termites are blind. They primarily communicate with each other through pheromones and vibrations. Pheromones are used mainly in their termite trails and for the individual termites to recognize one another. Termites can also release pheromones to mark a trail to a food source or alert the colony of impending danger.

Some termites also communicate by repeatedly hitting their heads against tunnel walls. The vibrations caused by head-banging notify worker termites when holes in the tunnels need to be repaired. Vibrations also alarm soldier termites when the colony is under threat of ants or another intruder.

The behavior that is most visibly seen by people and is a big indicator of a termite problem is swarming. Termites swarm with the purpose of growing the population of termites and forming new colonies. Subterranean termite colonies have the ability to produce thousands of swarmers, while others species of termites, such as drywood termites, produce fewer swarmers and as such, have a smaller population.

Check out our Termite Control products and resources here.

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