Termites would be one of the oldest living insects still alive, after descending from the cockroach about 250 million years ago. These insects live in large colonies of up to a quarter to a half million members. They are strongly organized in a strict social order in which roles and duties are regulated. So what do termites look like? They evolved very far from their distant ancestor. Here is a quick guide to help you identify them.
In the United States, most termites range from light to white to black. They have six short legs, a flexible body and white, and beaded wings. There are different social groups of termites and the ones we see most often are workers and relatives. The workers are the ones who do the most damage because they digest the wood. They have a soft body, a round head, and no wings. Their eyes are not developed, which means they are blind for all practical purposes. Their color varies from white to greyish white. Workers are responsible for obtaining food and water for the colony and for building tunnels for moving and disposing of waste. Sometimes they help the warriors defend the colony against invasive ants.
The termites that you see in the spring are often called swarm termites. They have wings and try to find partners and go with them to start new colonies. The color of their body varies from yellowish brown to black. They are the only termites with eyes and fully developed wings that they spread when they land on the ground to mate and build their colony.
There are more than thousands of termites in the world. The vast majority of termite species live in tropical climates, while some live in other climates. In the United States, there are about 45 species. Underground termites live in soil or wood in contact with the earth. In nature, they fulfill a vital function by eating wood and breaking down cellulose, so that the soil becomes richer again. However, when they try to do the same thing with the wood used in human construction, they become parasites.
Termites like other social insects like bees or ants tend to live in huge groups centered on their nests. Like bees and ants, the termites of the same nest are divided into different groups according to the functions they fulfill for the nest, such as soldiers, workers, nymphs, etc. These functional groups are quite different from each other.
Termite eggs look like jelly beans and are quite small. Once the queen has laid them down, it is the duty of the workers to watch them. Larvae are the next step. They are colorless and have a soft head. They too depend on the workers to take care of them. Termites have a creamy white body and a darker head and a hardened mouth. They are the largest group of termites and perform a variety of functions. These include finding and eating wood to feed others but also building and maintaining tunnels to prevent the nest from drying out. Termites will molt several times during their life by renewing their mouthpieces. Some of them may also start breeding if they are separated from the nest.
The termite soldiers are bigger than the others and keep the nest. They have a huge head and a long mouth to attack the invaders. They must rely on the workers to feed them. There are relatively few soldiers in a nest of termites. Nymphs are a particular group that can molt into winged termites that can fly to find new nests. They too can start breeding if they are separated from the nest.
Breeding termites produce eggs. There may be several breeding termites in a nest but there will always be at least one male and one female. There are several types of breeding termites. The main brownish-black reproduction termites only appear when the nest is mature and they will attempt to create a new nest after pairing with another.