Termites are very small and similar in size to ants, which often leads to confusion. Owing to their secretive nature, termites can be hard to detect, especially with an untrained eye. You are actually far more likely to spot the signs of termite damage before you spot termites themselves.
Termite species vary in habits, preferred food, size, body characteristics, colour and even parts of their lifecycle. There are some general characteristics, however, that are similar and can be used to identify termites and tell them from ants or other insects.
This page describes the different life stages and castes of termites and shows you how to tell flying termites from flying ants.
Call Rentokil today for advice and to schedule a termite inspection of your property.
As with any other pest, correct identification ensures the use of the most effective control methods and allows you to choose the most appropriate prevention steps to try and avoid problems in the future.
Termites have several stages in their life cycle from egg to adult and they also have different types, called castes, which have different roles in the nest and look different. Therefore it is important to recognise the different types of termite that are present in one colony.
Termites have three main developmental stages, unlike ants which have four. They undergo what is termed incomplete metamorphosis, which has no pupal stage:
Development is controlled by pheromones produced by the queen and one caste can develop into another caste, depending on the termite species and the requirements of the colony.
The eggs hatch to produce nymphs that are cared for by the young workers. The young nymphs are sometimes referred to as larvae and then nymphs after several moults. The termite larvae and nymphs resemble miniature adults. The nymphs differentiate into reproductives, workers or soldiers.
These nymphs have larger bodies than the other castes and also have eyes. There are two types, long winged and short winged.
The long-winged termite nymphs have eyes and wing buds that eventually develop into full wings. They are male and female and will develop into the alates that swarm when the weather is suitable. It may take several years for a new termite colony to produce alates.
A small percentage of termite larvae develop into short-winged termite nymphs. They also have eyes but their wings do not develop further. These develop into the neotenics (see below), which are one of the reproductive types and have the ability to produce eggs in the colony in certain situations.
Reproductives, as the name suggests are the castes with the ability to mate. They have functional sexual organs and the females can produce eggs when the queen dies or its influence is reduced.
Alates are the winged male and female reproductives that swarm out from the nest at certain times of the year or the rainy season. Males and females pair off and land to look for a nesting site.
Shortly after landing they snap their wings off and either excavate a small chamber in the soil (subterranean termites) or find suitable timber to create a nest (dampwood and drywood termites) then mate and produce eggs. It may take several years before the next generation of alates are produced in a new colony.
When in the new nest the male and female are regarded as the queen and king. They do not emerge again from the nest and may live for several decades. The queen feeds and tends to the hatched nymphs until they mature into workers. The workers then take over the caring and feeding of the young nymphs and also groom and feed the queen. The abdomen of the queen grows so large that it cannot move from its position in the middle of the nest, so will not be seen unless a nest is broken open.
These are secondary reproductives and can develop from nymphs or other castes (depending on termite species) when the influence of the queen reduces or disappears. This could be when the queen dies, when the colony grows large and the queen is ageing or when a satellite colony is established separate from the main one. The queen produces chemicals called pheromones that are passed around the colony and prevent the other reproductives from developing functional reproductive organs.
In some termite species the queen produces neotenics by parthenogenesis (asexual reproduction) when it is old and egg production is insufficient to maintain the colony. These neotenics are genetically identical to the queen and means the queen is “genetically immortal” until the colony dies out.
The workers make up the largest number in a colony and are the caste that is seen when a nest or infested wood is broken open. They have a pale brown, soft body, no eyes or wings, and hard mouthparts for chewing wood. They are both male and female but are sterile. The young workers feed and groom the other castes and care for the young. The older workers excavate or build the nest, construct the tunnels and forage for food which they bring back to the nest and feed to the other termites.
In some species, such as the invasive West Indian drywood termite (Cryptotermes brevis) there are no true workers. The young soldiers, which are called pseudergates, act as workers until they mature and then become fully fledged soldiers.
Soldiers defend the colony against attack by predatory enemies such as ants. They are eyeless, soft bodied and wingless. In some species the soldiers have an enlarged head with large mandibles (jaws) for defence. In species of the Nasutitermitinae subfamily the soldiers have a snout, called the nasus, which can spray a repellent liquid. These soldiers are usually smaller than the workers. Soldiers are unable to feed themselves and are fed by the workers.
Termites are similar in size to ants, which often leads to confusion, especially in their winged stage. Termites are highly unlikely to be seen crawling around your property unless they are in the winged stage, the alates, or have just shed their wings.
The other termite stages cannot survive long outside the protective humid atmosphere of their nests or tunnels because their soft bodies dry out quickly. There are species of termite that forage in the open, feeding on plant matter such as dead grass, leaves, twigs or lichen, but they require humid conditions, are mostly found in remote areas and are not pests of buildings.
Ants come into our homes looking for the food that we eat, such as sweet foods and protein sources, whereas the pest termites feed on wood and other cellulose sources such as paper. In fact ants are the main predators of termites, with some species of ant highly adapted to attacking ants and even co-habiting termite nests.
The alate phase of termites and ants, also called swarmers, cause the most confusion especially if they appear at similar times. Different species of both termites and ants swarm at different times — of the day or year — so there is no fixed rule for distinguishing them in this way. On close examination, however, you can easily tell the difference, as shown in the graphic and description below
Different species of termites have different habits and pose different risks to your property. Some species are more voracious eaters than others, so can inflict more damage in a shorter time.
Dampwood and drywood termites live and breed inside the wood they are feeding on, whereas subterranean termites build their nests in the ground or near sources of moisture above ground and send out the workers to forage for wood sources. They construct mud tubes when foraging above ground, to protect themselves from dehydration and from predators.
It is therefore important to identify which species is present to plan the most effective strategy for eradication, monitoring and future protection.
The location of your property as well as its component structure will both have an impact on the termite species that you may be at risk of. Generally speaking, incidence of termite infestation is much higher in the hotter climates of Australia such as Adelaide, Brisbane, Cairns and Sydney.
At Rentokil, we confirm the invading termite species through a visual identification of the insects themselves rather than just looking at the evidence of the damage to your building and its location.
Find out more about the main termite pest species present in Australia
The different types of termite have different ‘signatures’ in the way that they damage your timber. The points below explaining the difference between subterranean and drywood termites could be of help when checking your building for signs of activity:
Subterranean termites begin feeding on timber from the ground up and mostly enter a building through the sub-structure. Homes with crawl spaces are at great risk. It is here you should look for evidence of damaged wood and mud tubes. Wood damaged by subterranean termites has ‘galleries’ (hollow tunnels) that run along the grain of the wood as it is softer and easier to eat.
Drywood termites typically enter structures near the roof line or other exposed wood to begin building a colony. Inspect your attic for evidence of damaged wood. Look for tiny holes in the wood with evidence of frass collecting below — the termites push their droppings out of their galleries to keep them clean. Frass looks like sawdust, but on close inspection is composed of even-sized grains with six sides. Probing the wood above the frass may also expose termite galleries and the nest below a thin skin of wood or paint.
See the termite species page for more information on subterranean, drywood and dampwood termites.
Find out more about identifying termites from the damage that they cause
A termite infestation can result in costly repairs to your property. Having experienced a termite infestation, most people will be eager to ensure they do not have the same problem in the future.
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