Information On Termites


Termite Information

planet termite

Termites, the insects most feared by homeowners, are often called "white ants" because of their similar size, social structure and tendency to infest homes. But termites are not related to ants; they have closer ties to the cockroach. Termites are social insects and their colonies operate on a caste system, which includes a king, queen, workers and soldiers. The queen is considerably larger than her subjects and can lay 30,000 eggs a day for up to 15 years.

Some West African termites construct huge, 20-foot mounds that can house up to five million termites. Their construction methods are so sophisticated that they can maintain a constant temperature of 84-86 degrees within the nest. All 1,800 species of termite are herbivores, feeding on plant matter. Many species like to eat wood, and those inhabiting populated areas can cause serious damage to furniture, homes, trees and crops, compelling people to exterminate them. But termites are not merely instruments of destruction. In tropical forests, where most termite species live, they play an important ecological role, recycling nutrients from dead wood and improving soil fertility.

Dr. Paul Eggleton is the head of the Termite Research Group at the Natural History Museum in London. He and his team are researching the ecology and systematics of termites worldwide, especially in Africa, where termites are most important in ecosystems. The group is particularly interested in the role termites play in tropical forests, and how human disturbance of those forests affects termite diversity.


Incisitermes banksi: another rare Incisitermes termite found in mesquite in Mexico.

There are roughly 3,000 species of termites throughout the world, and they differ from each other to a greater or lesser extent in all aspects of biology, including what the queens do, so there's really no such thing as a standard "termite queen". It is true to say, however, that some termite queens are very large (up to 3-4 inches in length and about an inch in diameter), and some lay a lot of eggs in a very short time (in laboratory experiments some species have been shown to lay an egg a second, and so could theoretically lay over 30 million eggs a year!).

This sort of termite can lay such a large number of eggs for a number of reasons. First, because she is able to grow massively in size so that her ovaries fill almost the whole of her body. Second, because she is constantly cared for by worker termites, and often has a special chamber (the "queen cell") in the centre of the nest where she can sit, which is kept at a constant temperature and humidity and away from danger. Third, because the queen does nothing else except lay eggs and, in any case, is usually too large and bloated to move. This means that if there is any danger the workers have to move the queen themselves, and this does happen sometimes, when ants attack the queen cell, and the workers try to drag the queen to safety. Queens make a very nutritious meal for ants and, in some parts of the World humans love to eat them too!


The termites found in America are probably all different species from those found in Africa, although some wood feeding termites in America are very similar to those in Africa. As far as the "destructive" role of termites is concerned, no termite is "bent on destruction", they just naturally eat dead wood and happen to be particularly good at it. Most of the time this is a good thing as it helps to ensure that dead trees don't just end up piling up on top of each other over the years (I talk some more about this in the "Termite Ecology" section). However in the US termites are, by just doing what comes naturally, very destructive - they are estimated to cost people more money every year than fire and flood combined.

Termite Enemies

Termites occur in such large numbers that they they represent a very significant food source for a lot of creatures. Animals of all kinds, including humans, feed on the queen and king termites that fly in their millions from the nests at swarming time, while other animals attack the termites in their nests. Mammals, such as aardvarks in Africa, anteaters in south America and pangolins in south-east Asia, have large front legs with long claws with which they dig up mounds, and they then lick up the termites with long sticky tongues. However the most dangerous enemies of termites are underground ants. They find the tunnels that termites make in the soil and follow them back to the colony centre. In the case of some African termites, a mighty battle ensues with soldier termites fighting to try to prevent the predatory ants from getting to the centre of the colony where the queen lives. If the ants manage to invade the queen's chamber they pull her out and eat her, as she is a very rich source of protein and fat. As the end of the queen usually means the death of the whole colony, this battle between ant and termite is a truly a life and death struggle.



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