The Life of Subterranean Termites
Termites are extremely successful insects. They occur throughout all the temperate regions of the world. There have been over 2000 species of termites identified worldwide. There are several species that occur in the United States.
Of the three main types of termites, subterranean termites are the most wide-spread. They also account for the vast majority of damage done by termites throughout the United States. Subterranean termites are of concern to homeowners in 49 of the 50 states. Alaska is the only state that does not have any native termite species.
A subterranean termite colony begins with winged fertile reproductives (alates) that are released from a mature colony in the area. These winged insects (we call them "swarmers") are poor flyers. They flutter around in the warm sunshine, usually right after a spring rain. Very few of these insects will survive the swarming flight.
To succeed in establishing a new colony these swarmers must locate a mate, find a suitable food source, and burrow into the soil near the food source. All of this must happen before they dry out and die or are eaten by birds, ants or other predators.
A subterranean termite colony is a fairly permanent thing. A subterranean termite queen may live as long as 30 years. As she matures her abdomen distends making it impossible for her leave her royal chamber. She is fed and groomed by attendant workers.
Workers are by far the most numerous members of the colony. In addition to caring for the queen, the workers also care for the young, feed the soldiers and developing reproductives, and build and maintain the nest galleries and foraging tunnels. The workers range far from the nest foraging for food.
Termite workers eat dead wood or other things containing cellulose. Protozoans (tiny, one celled organisms) in the termite's gut digest the ground up wood and convert it to the nutrients that the termite needs. The workers carry this digested food back to the nest and then regurgitate it to feed the nymphs, soldiers, and reproductives. This process, called tropholaxis, is very common among insects.
Soldiers protect the colony from invading ants. They do not eat wood. they are completely dependent on workers to feed them. They aren't particularly effective at fighting off the ants. Instead, they block the entry to the galleries with their large heads and strong jaws (mandibles). The ants will usually succeed in taking several soldiers, while the termite colony itself remains relatively unharmed.
In addition to the primary queen, termite colonies often develop additional reproductive members. These are called supplemental queens. In addition to providing more eggs for the colony, if the primary queen dies, one of these supplemental reproductives will assume the role of primary queen.
Once a termite colony is four or five years old, some winged reproductives will develop. These are released in the spring. And from that time on, the colony produces more and more swarmers each year.
And the cycle continues . . .