Termite Facts, Identification and Control
Scientific Order: Blattodea
The Eastern Subterranean Termite (Reticulitermes flavipes) is the only termite that lives in New York
Size: Worker and soldier castes = ¼-inch long (6.35 millimeters)
Queen and male (reproductive) castes = ⅜-½ inch long (9.5-12.7 millimeters); Queens grow as they produce eggs
Color: Worker caste = light, creamy-white and translucent
Soldier caste = light, yellow-white body with large yellow-to-brown-orange head and large black jaws
Reproductive caste = dark brown or black bodies, large translucent wings
Behavior and Diet
Termites live together in large, eusocial colonies. Different types, or “castes”, of termites fulfill different functions within the colony. Each caste uses a complex, pheromone-based communication system to relay information to one another. Termites are specialized enough that developed colonies functionally operate as a single “super” organism. There are three termite castes: workers, soldiers, and reproducers.
Workers are responsible for all the labor in the colony. They care for young termites, build and expand the nest, carve tunnels, and feed the other castes. Termites subsist on the cellulose found in wood and other related products. They consume this cellulose by chewing tunnels through it, eating and building out their homes at the same time.
Worker-made feeding tunnels compromise wood’s structural integrity. A thriving termite colony may eat up to 5 grams of wood a day. Workers may also forage for food outside of their primary area of infestation and occasionally feed on furniture or living plants.
Workers spend the majority of their time in the nest, and they never willingly expose themselves to light. Homeowners are not likely to encounter worker termites unless they break into infested wood directly.
Soldiers protect the colony using specialized jaw mouth parts. When rival pests such as other termite colonies or carpenter ants invade their nest or break into existing wood tunnels, soldiers swarm to the breach to defend it.
Soldiers’ specialized mouth parts make them unable to feed themselves. They rely on the worker caste to feed them. Soldiers stay inside the nest or branching tunnels at all times. Like workers, they can be either male or female, but they’re functionally sterile. There are far fewer soldiers in a colony than workers.
Reproducers include “king” and “queen” termites. They are the only caste with wings and functioning eyes. Reproducers swarm at the beginning of their lives to find mates. After pairing, their wings break off and they spend the rest of their lives in their nests.
Termite queens may lay fertile eggs for their entire life spans, and can easily produce over 500 offspring a year. A mature termite colony contains an average of 300,000 termites, but they may contain as many as five million.
Contrary to popular belief, termites do not live in the tunnels they carve in wood. Termites require moisture to survive, so they build their nests in moist soil. They occasionally return to this soil to regain moisture, especially during hot months. “Termite tubes” are hollow lines of dirt and mud that termites build to stay moist while they move around large infested areas or colonies.
Reproduction and Life Cycle
Reproductive termites swarm in late winter or early spring, usually between late January to early April. During this time, kings and queens actively seek a partner of the opposite sex. Termites swarm until they find a mate.
When the kings and queens are paired off, their wings snap off. Queens begin looking for a good place to nest, usually a patch of moist soil near wood or a humid corner of a basement. When a site is chosen, the pair build a “royal chamber” that will be the origin site of their colony. The queen does not leave this chamber for the rest of her life, and continues to lay eggs constantly. Termites in the reproductive caste may live between 5 and 10 years.
The king and queen care for recently hatched larvae until it molts into the first generation of workers. These workers begin expanding the colony by foraging and chewing through nearby food. Eventually, workers care for the queen’s offspring while the reproductive classes continue to lay fertilized eggs full-time, creating more workers and soldiers. Worker termites naturally live around 2 years, and they spend the majority of this time working for the colony. Soldiers have a similar lifespan.
After 5 to 7 years of growth, a queen may begin producing reproductive larvae to either replace her or to form new colonies elsewhere. The presence of winged, reproductive termites around a colony is therefore a sign that the colony is thriving. If a queen should die while a colony is growing, workers adapt by developing reproductive organs. These “secondary” reproducers may also develop if a colony becomes so large that a subsection of it is cut off from the original nest.
Signs of Infestation
One of the only visible signs of termite infestation are the discarded wings from swarming reproductive caste termites. If you find discarded termite wings near your home, it means that a termite king and queen paired up nearby and are either actively searching for or have already found a site for their nest.
During spring mating season, you may also see swarming reproductive termites near your building. Carpenter ants look very similar to termites, however. To tell the two pests apart, look for the termite’s broad waist, straight antennae, and larger wings.
Wood infested by termites will often have “termite tubes” on or near it. Termite tubes are earthy, muddy, or glue-like narrow tracks of material caked onto sheer surfaces of wood. Termites use these tubes to move from the ground to sources of food. They’re especially common around cellar walls, wooden posts, wall studs, and window and door sills.
Finally, you could look for wood damage. Over a long enough period of time, termite-infested wood may begin to look rotten, hollow, damaged, or soggy. Use an awl or a screwdriver to prod the wood, looking for weak or hollow places. This may reveal tunnels built by termite workers.
Treatment and Prevention
Remove likely food sources such as wooden debris from around the perimeter of your building. Cover or replace wooden posts, steps, trellises, or decking that directly contacts the ground. Do not use wood-based mulch in gardens or around bushes. Keep stacks of lumber or firewood in elevated locations away from the building.
Treat or finish unfinished wood and replaced old and damaged wood furniture or materials. Make sure only pressure-treated wood contacts the soil, and only when necessary. Keep other wood at least 18 inches off of the soil. Periodically test your wood’s structural integrity. Remove any infested wood immediately and ensure it’s taken off-site.
Practice good climate control, especially in naturally damp or dark parts of the building. Locate and fix plumbing leaks and other sources of uncontrollable moisture. Make sure your basement has adequate draining and stays dry year-round. Prevent puddling, condensation, or other accumulations of moisture.
Keep the inside and outside of your building clean and free of debris or piles. Keep a five-foot perimeter around the base of the building clear at all times. Look for gaps, cracks, and openings around utility lines, window and door sills and frames, walls, and the foundation. Seal cracks with caulk or steel wool.
Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences “What’s Bugging You?” Termites page
Cornell Cooperative Extension Insect and Plant Disease Diagnostic Laboratory’s “Eastern Subterranean Termites” info sheet
Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences Department of Entomology’s Eastern Subterranean Termites fact sheet
University of Florida Department of Entomology and Nematology Eastern Subterranean Termite “Featured Creatures” page
Northeastern IPM Center New York Integrated Pest Management Program’s Tips for Reducing Eastern Subterranean Termites page
Bugguide.net’s Eastern Subterranean Termite Info page
Pestworld.org’s Subterranean Termites page
“Subterranean Termite Biology and Behavior” article by Virginia Tech’s Associate Professor and Extension Specialist, Entomology, Dini M. Miller via the Virginia Cooperative Extension