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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

Managing Their Dead:

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

Undertaking Termites:

What did we learn from this study?

  • How the long the termite has been dead can determine how they are “handled”
  • Different castes of termites are “handled” differently

Fresh Bodies:

If the termite was “freshly” dead

Dead, fresh worker termites were collected from the test area, brought back to the colony and cannibalized

  • If they were workers with long wing buds finding and removing the worker took significantly longer

Freshly dead soldiers were also collected and cannibalized


Why do termites cannibalize workers and soldiers?

  • Nutrient recycling
  • Gut symbiont sharing
  • Prevent pathogen development
  • Growth on dead bodies


Not-So-Fresh Bodies:

Worker termites that had been dead for more than 64 hours

When the worker was found it was buried on site (where the body was found)

Solider termites were “walled off” AND buried

Probably to separate decomposed bodies from the colony and/or prevent further disease transmission

  • Avoid contact with predators/competitors

Fig. 3. Behavioral responses to corpses with 64 h postmortem time from different castes. (A) Schematic drawings depict three different undertaking behaviors when termites encounter corpses from different castes. Drawings from top to bottom represent burial, wall-off, and move, then burial, respectively. (B) Behavioral responses to corpses from each caste. Stacked bars indicate the percentages of behavioral responses depicted in A.

Why Should a PMP care about undertaking Termites?

  • Most of the liquid termiticides we use for structural protection are non-repellent
  • Baits are non-repellent
  • If a lethal dose is reached or a dose that affects the termite to cause mortality the dead termite and any remaining active ingredient is potentially “recycled” back into the colony via cannibalism
  • This is another mechanism that the active ingredients MIGHT be moved throughout a colony

FACT #2 Colonies can be founded in different ways

Swarming Event:Fact4

The king & queen pair up, shed their wings, and create a nest chamber for their first batch of 6-12 eggs. The queen will care for this first batch until they can take over as workers to tend to colony care needs. 

New Colony Formation:

We often believe swarming is the only way termites create new colonies. Are there other ways termites can create “new” separate colonies? New colony formation can also occur if a portion of the termites in a colony is separated from the rest of the colony, resulting in the formation of sub-colonies. This is termed as colony “splitting” or “budding”. What types of events can lead to this behavior? Colony Founding, and how does this information help a PMP? Understanding how colonies are founded and created can help us understand colony elimination if there are several colonies on a property. 

FACT #3 Termite castes non-predetermined

Development of termites:Fact9_development

All larvae hatch from eggs. Each individual larva has the potential to develop into any caste. Each individual larva has the potential to be either fertile or non-fertile.

Termites and Division of Labor:

Termites are Eusocial and have a caste system. Castes have specialized morphologies, based on their specialized tasks. Diverse, sometimes very large nests. Castes are generally divided into 2 types of termites.

  • Fertile
  • Non-fertile

The fertile termites include:

  • Primary reproductive, secondary reproductive

The non-fertile termites include:

  • Workers, soldier

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How is caste determined?

  • Nutritional factors
  • Seasonal factors
  • Temperature & humidity
  • Social interaction among castes
  • Sex
    –Some termites, the sex can determine the caste
    –At least one species is known to have only males as soldiers
  • Pheromone & hormone levels

Classically, assuming that all egg contains the similar or identical genetic information, caste developmental fates are determined depending on various environmental factors experienced during postembryonic development, as well as sex and egg factors.

Termites as a Superorganism:

  • Colonies can change their inner conditions by individual actions of colony members
  • Individually and interactions with other members

How does this help a PMP? By understanding basic biology and how termites behave we better understand how to manage them…  know they enemy!

FACT # 4 Termites can eat a lottermites19

How much wood CAN a termite eat?

The average subterranean termite consumes 0.004 to 0.196 mg of food per day. Averages 0.08 mg per termite per day. Native subterranean termite colonies have an average of 200,000 workers. Formosan subterranean termites colonies an have an average of 500,000 workers. If we assume all species are approximately equal in the amount of wood EACH TERMITE can consume:

The average native subterranean termite colony could eat

  • 16 grams (0.56 oz) of wood per day
  • 465 grams (1.07 lbs) per month
  • 5840 grams (12.9 lbs) per year

The average Formosan termite colony will be about twice these estimates.

So how much wood is that?

The average 2” X 4” X 10’ weighs approx. (a piece of lumber)  

  • 13-17 lbs (5896 – 7711 grams)
  • Variation is due to Kiln dried vs. Green lumber

So, if a termite colony eats NO OTHER FOOD sources. An average native subterranean termite could consume a 2 X 4 X10 in one year, and a Formosan colony could do it in half that time.

FACT #5 A weird relationship

With a fungus…?

Termites and fungus share a long history

  • Habitat sharing
  • Wood decomposition (decomposers)

Both of these organisms share similar habitats and are critical for the decomposition of wood. Association between these organisms brought some interesting evolutionary consequences. For example, some fungi species form fungal masses that mimic termite eggs which act opportunistically to access & steal termite colony resources. 

A fungus forms “termite balls” that can be harbored in termite nests

  • Fungal masses of mycelium

These termite balls are held in the egg chambers…


Fungus “termite balls”:Fact8eggs

  • Fungal balls mimic eggs
  • Matsurra et al. showed evidence the fungus produces cellulose digesting enzymes
  • Possibly an egg recognition pheromone

The enzymes produced by the fungal balls are also found in salivary secretions of termites.

The overlap of these organisms in the decomposer group AND sharing similar chemicals to break down cellulose led to the origin of termite egg mimicry.

Beneficial Role of Termites:

How does this information help a PMP? Termites are complex creatures with complex relationships. Understanding basic biology and not so basic behavior will make you better as a PMP.

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FACT #1– "Managing Corpses From Different Castes in the Eastern Subterranean Termite”

Multi-discipline and university study Jizhe Shi, chi Zhang, Sirui Huang, Austin Merchant, Qian Sun, Chuan Zhou, Kenneth F. Haynes, and Xuguo Zhou University of Kentucky, Louisiana State University, Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences

Ann Entomol Soc Am, Volume 114, Issue 5, September 2021, Pages 662–671,

FACT #3Social interactions affecting caste development through physiological actions in termites Dai Watanabe, Hioki Gotoh, Toru Miura, Kiyoto Maekawa Front Physiol. 2014; 5: 127.
Depending on the species, the developmental pathways are roughly divided into two patterns, i.e., a linear pathway or a bifurcated pathway doi: 10.3389/fphys.2014.00127

FACT #4–Based on 1998 NPCA report authored by Dr. Barbara Thorne, "Biology of Subterranean Termites of the Genus Reticulitermes," 

FACT #5–

Cuckoo Fungus Mimics Termite Eggs by Producing the Cellulose-Digesting Enzyme B-Glucosidase

Kenji Matsuura, Toshihisa Yashiro, Ken Shimizu, Shingo Tatsumi, Takashi Tamura

Curr. Biol. 19 (2009), 30-36

Tag(s): CSI-Pest , Termites

Heather Patterson

PCO Technical Service Manager

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