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March 4, 2022

5 Fascinating and Useful Termite Facts

A closer look, 5 facts you may not know:

FACT #1 Termites have undertakersDeadTermite-cropped

Termite colonies have undertaker workers to manage and dispose of dead colony members. This task is very important for overall colony health.

  • How the long the termite has been dead, and which caste it belongs to, can influence how they are handled.

  • “Freshly” dead termites are often collected and brought back to the colony to be cannibalized.
  • Cannibalism of dead nestmates is a form of nutrient recycling and can also help to recirculate beneficial gut symbionts and prevent pathogen development.
  • Dead termites that are not-so-fresh are usually buried.

FACT #2 Colonies can be founded in different ways
  • Swarming events
    • During a swarming event, the king & queen pair up, shed their wings, and create a nest chamber for their first batch of eggs.
    • The queen will care for this first batch until they can take over as workers to tend to colony.
    • It may take years for a new colony to grow large enough to produce swarmers of their own.
  • Budding events
    • New colony formation can also occur if a portion of the termites in a colony are separated from the rest of the colony, resulting in the formation of sub-colonies.
    • This is termed as colony “splitting” or “budding”.

FACT #3 Termite castes non-predetermined
  • Being eusocial, termites have a caste system where nestmates have different responsibilities and work together to contribute to the success of the colony. Castes have specialized morphologies based on their specialized tasks.

    • Castes include fertile and non-fertile individuals.
    • Fertile termite castes: primary reproductives, secondary reproductives, alates
    • Non-fertile termite castes: workers, soldiers
    • Typically, early instar termites have the potential to develop into any caste. Factors that can influence developmental fate include:
      • Nutrition
      • Seasonal factors
      • Temperature & humidity
      • Social interaction among castes
      • Sex of the individual
      • Pheromone & hormone levels

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FACT # 4 Termites can eat things other than wood

Some termite species are not considered structurally important because they do not feed on wood.

  • Lower termites:
  • Feed mostly on wood with the help of protozoa gut symbionts
  • Higher termites:
  • Feed on a wider variety of materials: organic matter, animal feces, plant detritus, grass, and fungi

FACT #5 Termites have unique forms of defense

Termites have evolved many interesting, unusual, and useful defense mechanisms. Some species have soldiers that defend the nest with:

  • Strong mandibles that can crush or pierce their opponents
  • Long, slender mandibles that can powerfully snap and strike their enemies
  • Rigid, plug-like heads used to block nest entrances and prevent enemy entry
  • Noxious, defensive secretions

Even more unusual is the evidence of older worker termites (Neocapritermes taracua) who develop substances that can rupture and burst toxic material onto their opponents during aggressive or threatening interactions.

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O’Brien, R.W., & Slaytor, M. (1982). Role of Microorganisms in the Metabolism of Termites. Australian Journal of Biological Sciences 35, 239-262.

Scheffrahn, R.H., Bourguignon, T., Akama, P.D., Sillam-Dussès, D., & Šobotník, J. (2018). Roisinitermes ebogoensis gen. & sp. n., an outstanding drywood termite with snapping soldiers from Cameroon (Isoptera, Kalotermitidae). ZooKeys 787: 91-105.

Shi, J., Zhang, C., Huang, S., Merchant, A., Sun, Q., Zhou, C., Haynes, K. F., & Zhou, X. (2021). Managing Corpses From Different Castes in the Eastern Subterranean Termite. Annals of the Entomological Society of America, 114(5), 662–671.

Sobotnik, J., Bourguignon, T., Hanus, R., Demianova, Z., Pytelkova, J., Mares, M., … Roisin, Y. (2012). Explosive Backpacks in Old Termite Workers. Science, 337(6093), 436–436. doi:10.1126/science.1219129

Watanabe, D., Gotoh, H., Miura, T., & Maekawa, K. (2014). Social interactions affecting caste development through physiological actions in termites. Frontiers in Physiology, 5. doi:10.3389/fphys.2014.00127


Tag(s): CSI-Pest , Termites

Heather Patterson

PCO Technical Service Manager

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