Subterranean termites, the most common kind of termite found in the U.S., live in the soil, from just below the surface to as much as 12 feet down. Foraging territories may have extended 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.

Flight of the Swarmer Termite

Swarmer termites are usually the first visual indication that there are termites present. Before the swarmers take flight, environmental conditions must be just right. Usually, these environmental conditions happen to be on warm, sunny, humid days. Other contributing factors include moisture levels inside and outside the colony, light conditions, and the barometric pressure. Conditions such as these occur often after a day of rain showers.

After a short flight, males and females pair off after their wings are broken off and they attempt to establish a new colony. A sure sign that termites have swarmed is the finding of a pile of hundreds of these broken off wings within a small area.

How a New Subterranean Termite Colony Is Begun

Since swarmer termites are so defenseless at this stage of their lives, many couples do not survive due to natural death or death by natural enemies. Whatever pairs do survive end up making their own little 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. Granted, they are the founders of a colony, but it is actually the supplementary reproductives, which 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 are responsible for the remainder.

The Subterranean Termite's Environment

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 little buggers? Well, 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 the soil unless there is a constant aboveground 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 encouraged to also 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 the termite. In turn, the fecal matter accumulation 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 can find conditions which are suitable to their living requirements by way of temperature and humidity. In the spring, the colony will respond to a change in temperature and moisture and resume their position near the surface of the soil.

Another factor affecting suitable termite living conditions is the type of soil they flourish in. Subterranean termites generally prefer sandy soil to a clay soil.

Subterranean Termite Feeding Habits

Believe it or not, different species of termites have different appetites for different woods. The eastern subterranean termite prefers slash and loblolly pine while the Formosan termite prefers sugar maple and slash and loblolly pine. Condition of wood is another factor that affects the termite's taste. Decayed wood is much more appetizing than sound wood. Termites will increase the moisture content of wood to encourage its decay.

The major species of subterranean termites in the U.S. consume wood at approximately the rate of 2 to 3 percent of their body weight each day. Let's take a mature colony of eastern subterranean termites containing about 60,000 workers compared to a Formosan termite colony with numbers around 350,000 in workers. At the aforementioned rate, it would take the average eastern termite approximately 118 days to consume a one-foot length of 2x4 pine while the Formosan colony could accomplish the same thing in 19 days. Therefore, it is plain to see that Formosan termites are usually more destructive than their eastern counterparts.

Communication in the Colony

Because termites are social insects, they need forms of communication so they can live and function together as a colony.

The most basic means in termite colonies is via 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 blocked out of the colony, they will wall him/her off with fecal matter.

Another means of communication is sound. Workers and soldiers will begin rapidly banging their heads against their galleries or mud tubes as a warning that their colony is being disturbed. 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.

Trophallaxis is a primary means of communication involving the mutual exchange of nutrients and 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 go on living by digesting 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.


Fortunately, there is treatment available for termites that is not limited to just one method. There is the typical soil injection treatment. Also, there is wood protectant that works by killing the microorganisms living inside of the termites that are vital to their existence. Termite repellant has been proven to be very effective by soaking into the wood and making it toxic any insects that choose it for a prospective meal. If environmentally sound alternatives are the way you would like to go, then there are numerous termite baiting systems out there that are not only extremely efficient, but also convenient and cost-effective. Following are more detailed descriptions of the options available for termite treatment:

Soil Injection: Soil injection works basically by creating a chemical barrier around a house so that no termites can make it through to make soil to house contact, which is the way they enter structures. This type of treatment is proven effective since it has been standard treatment for subterranean termites for over 50 years. Drawbacks include drilling through the concrete of the foundations of houses to inject the chemical.

Termite Baiting: Termite baiting is an excellent solution to termite control. Not only can it be used for treatment, it can also be used as a preventative measure to detect termites before they invade your house. Termite baiting works in different ways depending on the type of system that is used. Generally, it works by killing the workers in a termite colony, thus starving the colony of food.

Wood Treatment: This type of termite treatment is used equally as a preventative and control measure. As a preventative, you would treat the wood with chemical, therefore making it toxic to any termites that might dare to possibly use it as a feeding area. After an infestation has occurred, wood treatment is effective by killing off the protozoa that live inside of termites, making it impossible for them to digest the cellulose that they need to survive. The only drawback here is that this form of treatment used after an infestation has occurred will only stop the termites from eating the treated wood and will not necessarily control an infestation.

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