Pest Information

What Do Termites Look Like? And Everything Else You Need To Know.

Over the last five years, termites have caused $3.9 billion worth of damage to at least 650,000 Australian homes. One in 3 Australian homes is at risk of an infestation.

How do you know if your home is among them? What do termites look like? What is typical termite behavior?

Read on for answers to all of your termite questions.

What are Termites?

Termites are insects with a highly organised social hierarchy. They live in colonies consisting of a few thousand to millions of termites.

Termites live, work, and breed within these colonies. At her peak, the termite queen can lay up to 1,000 eggs per day. She lays these eggs in rows. Once the eggs hatch into nymphs, the worker termites feed them.

Termites remain in the nymph stage for 2-4 months. However, this developmental period can last longer depending on several factors. These include the availability of food, temperature, and strength of the colony.

What Do Termites Look Like, and How Big Are Termites?

Termites are mostly light brown to white. Their bodies are unsegmented, and they have beaded antennae.

Different types of termites vary in size, colour, and other aspects of appearance. Within the colony, each termite is a member of a caste. The main castes are workers, soldiers, and alates. Under the king and queen, these different castes fulfill different roles.

Termite Queen and King

Most colonies have one pair of reproducing termites: the king and queen. The queen is the most important member of the colony. As such, she and the king are highly protected, living deep in the centre of the colony.

Termite Queen

The Termite Queen

With the king, the queen founds the colony and cares for the young until the colony has enough worker termites to take over.

A new king and queen may only produce 10-20 eggs. However, eventually, the queen is capable of laying thousands.

The queen also has incredible longevity with a lifespan of up to 20 years.

Often swollen with eggs, the queen is the largest termite in the colony, growing up to 10 cm.

The king and queen are also darker than other types of termites. Like the secondary reproducers in the alate caste, they are winged. Only the king and queen have eyes.

Termite Alates

The alates are the secondary and tertiary reproducers. Only mature termite colonies produce alates.

Like the king and queen, alates have wings. However, they are blind. Until they leave to start their own colonies, they assist in the work of reproduction.

Termite Soldiers

Like the king and queen, termite soldiers are darker than termite workers. They also have large heads, which are darker than their bodies.

Termite Soldier

Termite Soldier

Termite soldiers can grow up to 12 mm. Like workers, like they are blind, sexless, and wingless. While they are essentially male and female, their reproductive organs are not developed.

As their name suggests, termite soldiers defend the colony against enemies, including ants. Two types of termite soldiers can be identified. Mandibulate soldiers have well-developed jaws, while Nasute soldiers have a long, drawn-out snout covering a small mouth and jaw.

Termite Workers

Termite Worker

Termite Worker

Worker termites, who make up the largest portion of the colony, are lighter in colour. However, the food they’ve eaten often gives their bodies a darker hue.

Worker termites are also the smallest termites. On average, they measure between 4-6 mm.

True to their name, worker termites serve the colony. They gather food and feed other members of the colony. They also clean, maintain, and repair the mound.

Ants vs. Termites

Termites are sometimes called “white ants” because termites are lighter in colour and appear somewhat similar. However, termites are not just “ants with wings,” and termites and ants are only distantly related. Termites are more closely related to cockroaches, and recent studies confirm that termites evolved from cockroaches.

In fact, termites and ants belong to different classifications. Ants fall under the scientific group named Hymenoptera. Termites originally fell under the group Isoptera. However, they are now classified with cockroaches under the group Blattodea.

Unlike ants, termites’ bodies are not segmented. Their waists are thick, while ants’ bodies narrow at the waist.

Termites also have straight, beaded antennae. In contrast, ants’ antennae are elbowed and unbeaded. While most termites are blind, ants have powerful eyes.

In terms of behavior, termites are more reclusive than ants. After burrowing into wood, termites seal the entrance to the colony and live hidden away. Ants, in contrast, can be seen more frequently leaving the nest.

Do Ants Deter Termites?

Ants and termites are natural enemies.

In fact, ants will kill termites to defend their colonies. Ants also enjoy eating termites.

While ants prey on termites, having an ant problem is not a solution to having a termite problem. First, both pests are destructive. Second, ants are strategic in their attacks on termites. Because they enjoy eating termites, they will not wipe out an entire termite colony. Rather, they will kill and eat only the termites they need to survive.

What Areas Are More Likely To See Termites?

Termites are more prominent in areas with open land, trees, and large gardens. These landscape features provide plenty of food and places to nest.

Termites are also more likely to be found in older homes with deteriorating timber. Timber that is affected by wood rot and poor subfloor ventilation offers ideal moisture conditions for termites.

In addition to moisture, the ideal termite habitat is also warm. As a whole, Sydney’s coastal region combines these ideal conditions.

When other factors combine, however, certain areas of Sydney do face a higher risk of termite infestation. Because they include many older homes built on large expanses of land, the North and Northwestern suburbs—from the Hills District to Pennant Hills and Epping—are hotspots.

House style is also a factor. Terrace houses are at particular risk because they are older homes and are joined together. Thus, additional hotspots include Sydney suburbs, such as Balmain, Leichardt, Newtown, and Marrickville.

When Are Termites Active?

Termites prefer warm, moist climates and are most active in the summer months.

Some variation exists across types of termites, however. Subterranean termites, which cause the most damage, are more active early in the season—from late spring through the summer. Subterranean termites also tend to be more active during the day.

Dry-wood termites are more active in the late summer into autumn. They tend to be more active at night.

What Do Termites Eat?

Termites’ eating behavior is what makes them so destructive and so feared. Termites are detritus feeders. This means that termites eat decaying wood and plant material.

Their primary food is wood, and their primary nutrient is cellulose.

Cellulose is a fiber found in wood and other dead plant materials. Termites break this cellulose down into sugar, which they use as fuel.

Termites will feed on other materials, such as paper, carpet, drywall, insulation, and fabric. Some even eat animal feces and human food waste that contains cellulose, including fruit and nuts.

However, the bulk of their diet remains wood. Nevertheless, if other materials, including plastic and even thin sheets of lead, stand in the way of a wood-based meal, termites can and will chew through it.

What Do Termites Do and How Do They Do It?

Beyond their affinity for wood, most people know little about termite behavior. Knowing more, though, can help you combat—and even prevent—a termite infestation.

How Do Termites Build Their Mounds?

Termites live in four main types of dwellings:

  • Mounds on the ground
  • Subterranean nests
  • Tree or pole nests that are external to the tree or pole but connected to an internal cavity
  • The inner structures of trees

Mound-dwelling termites are common in Australia.

Termite MoundTermite mounds are incredible feats of ongoing architecture. Constructing the original mound requires termites to move more than 250kg of dirt. Some termite mounds stretch 5 metres high or taller.

The external structure of the termite mound conceals and protects an intricate system of tunnels and chambers. Inside this structure, the workers transport food and clean the colony, while the soldiers defend it. Meanwhile, the king and queen—protected deep within their royal chamber—breed.

Because they are blind, termites’ awareness of the world around them is limited to the immediate vicinity. Thus, experts believe that construction of the mound begins from a single tunnel and its associated chamber. Each tunnel ends in a chamber. From that chamber, additional tunnels can branch off. Thus, the construction of the mound is ongoing.

How Do Termites Get Inside Your House?

Even if termites live in colonies that are hundreds of meters from your house, they can reach your house through a series of long mud tunnels. The wood structures of your home make an appealing meal for termites. During the colder winter months, termites also seek warmth in your home.

Signs of a termite infestation include:

  • Hearing a hollow sound when you knock on wooden structures
  • Sagging floors
  • Woodwork that is easily damaged
  • Cracked paint or plaster
  • Interruptions to your power

If you notice any of these signs, contact a pest control expert right away.

To avoid these signs and the damage they indicate, however, schedule an annual termite inspection. During this inspection, a trained expert will identify early signs of termites. He will also point out conditions that make your property vulnerable and suggest modifications to lessen your risk of infestation.

Do Termites Fly?

Only reproductive termites have wings. Thus, most termites in the colony cannot fly.

Although they are not exceptional fliers, adult reproductive termites’ wings serve an important purpose. When a colony reaches maturity and the weather is warm, mature alates leave the colony. While swarming, these termites mate and form new colonies. When a reproductive termite pair settles in its own colony, the king and queen shed their wings.

Can Termites Swim?

Termites cannot swim, and eventually, they can drown. However, they can survive underwater for as long as 16-30 hours. During this time, termites protect themselves by entering an immobile state that requires less oxygen.

Thus, termites have been known to survive floods. In addition, the moist aftermath of a flood creates ideal conditions for surviving termites.

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Terminating Termites and the Destruction They Cause

Termites are more than pesky, and they are more than an inconvenience. They are a destructive threat to the integrity of your house and property.

It’s important, therefore, to recognise termites. With this guide, you can now answer the question, “What do termites look like?” You can also work proactively to reduce your risk and act quickly when you notice signs of an infestation.

Chris Taylor

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