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Termite Biology and Damage

Subterranean termites are one of the most economically significant insects in the United States. Every year, termites cause many millions of dollars in damage to wooden homes and other structures. Left untreated, long-standing termite infestations can undermine a building's structural integrity to the point that it must be demolished, or may even collapse upon itself. Luckily, homeowners now have several effective termite treatment options to choose from.

Termite Biology

As the name implies, subterranean termites live underground in the soil. They feed on wood. They must maintain a route between their nests in the soil and their food source at all times. Where the soil and the source of food are separated, termites build mud shelter tubes, through which they travel between the two.

Termites exist in highly social societies divided into distinct castes, with strictly defined divisions of labor.


Tiny and grub-like, worker termites are nonetheless the caste that do all the damage to wood. Sterile and blind, the worker termites forage for cellulose-based food for the entire colony. Some also care for the queen, her eggs, and the colony's soldiers and nymphs.

The activities of worker termites are are controlled by the queen by way of a complex system of chemical messengers known as pheromones, which we have barely scratched the surface of understanding.

Alates (also called "Swarmers")

Easily confused with flying ants, swarmers fly from mature colonies to mate and start new colonies of their own. The great majority will die, and their dead bodies and shed wings are one of the most common signs that a home has a termite problem.

Many homeowners become distressed when they see what they believe to be termites, but which actually are just winged ants. Please make sure you save samples for the Fillmore Termite and Pest and Control, Inc. technician to look at.)

The Queen

The queen is the only termite with wings besides the king. These termites are actually former alates who have settled down and formed a colony of their own.

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. And as if that weren't bad enough, some termite colonies have additional, non-winged reproductive termites known as supplemental reproductives.

The King

The king termite is the male half of a single mating pair of termites who have succeeded in finding a place to mate and start a new colony. His initial duties are reproduction and caring for the colony's young during its initial stages, before there are any mature workers.

Once the number of mature workers has grown to a sufficient level, the workers will take over the care and feeding of the colony's young, and the king's duties will consist solely of reproduction.


Found only in mature colonies, soldiers are adapted to defending the colony against intruders and predators. They are most easily recognized by their enlarged heads and mandibles (mouthparts). At the first sign of a threat to the colony (for example, a broken mud tube), the workers muster at the site of the threat and prepare to do battle with whatever is attacking the colony.

Worker termites' mandibles are modified into weapons, and as a result they are unable to feed themselves; so they rely on the workers to feed them.

Termite Damage

Termites gain access into a home or building in many ways, including:

  • Around water pipes
  • Through cracks in foundation
  • Directly, when wood is in direct contact with soil
  • From behind walls
  • Under floor coverings
  • Through expansion joints between the slab and the foundation footer
  • From inside hollow block foundations
  • From wood debris left in crawl space.
  • From storing firewood and other wood debris next to the foundation
  • From untreated wood decks attached to foundation
  • Through expansion cracks for room additions

Left untreated, termites can cause incredible damage to wooden components of buildings, as the pictures on the right show. It is not uncommon for termites to do many thousands of dollars worth of damage before they are detected. Over time, they could literally reduce a home to sawdust if they remained undetected and untreated.

In fact, it's estimated that termites cause several billion dollars of damage a year in to buildings in the United States alone, making them the single most destructive non-agricultural pest.

In addition to the damage they cause to buildings, termites can also attack other things that contain cellulose, such as wooden furniture, musical instruments, and books.

Termites literally eat wood (unlike carpenter ants, who just carve out galleries for a place to live). Termite galleries tend to be rough, and often contain mud, soil, and frass (a mixture of sawdust and various termite by-products).

Termites also build mud tubing to provide a dark, moisture-controlled tunnel between the soil and the wood they are feeding upon. Exterminators often break these tubes to determine if a colony is active. If live termites are found or if the break is repaired within a day or two, then the colony is active.