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What is a Termite?

A termite is a small, soft body insect, a “wood-destroying organism” commonly referred to as “WDO’s” by pest service technicians. There are several different species of termites that cause severe damage to residential and commercial buildings, boats, trees, and even high-rise condominiums. Recent research has reclassified termites from the taxonomic order Isoptera into the epifamily, Termitidae, indicating termites are actually a new family of cockroaches and belong to the same order as cockroaches, (Blattodea).

Formosan Subterranean Termite Soldier (Coptotermes formosanus)

Formosan Subterranean Termite Soldier (Coptotermes formosanus)
Note the large and powerful mandibles (mouth parts).

Termites are Cockroaches with the Ability to Eat Wood

Scientist have known for years that termites were related to cockroaches but whether or not termites evolved from cockroaches has been heavily debated. Results of DNA analyses from 107 different species of termites conducted by London’s Natural History Museum termite expert, Dr. Paul Eggleton and his colleagues, the debate has finally been laid to rest. According to Dr. Eggleton, “The key change in the termites’ evolution from their cockroach ancestors seems to be when they developed the ability to eat wood. This finally establishes where termites belong within the insects.”

ARS Entomologists experimenting with cockroaches

ARS Entomologists experimenting with cockroaches

What’s That Flying? Ant or Termite?

What’s That Flying? Ant or Termite?

When you think of a termite, often you think of an ant-type of insect with wings but soldier and worker termites are wingless. The winged termites are referred to as “atale” or the reproductive caste which in dry areas like southern California, will swarm after the first rain.

Drawing compares a winged termite to a winged ant

Drawing compares a winged termite to a winged ant

Winged ants and winged termites are very similar in appearance. A closer look at their wings and body structure will provide the difference between the two. The ant has 2 pairs of wings, one long and one short (like a bee’s) whereas the winged termite has one pair of long wings, the same in size and length.

Formosan subterranean termite nest excavated in Louisiana

Formosan subterranean termite nest excavated in Louisiana. Nests are called “cartons” made of fecal matter and wood built under or above ground.

Even the wingless termite worker or soldier looks like an ant (a white ant). Although it’s now established that termites are really cockroaches, termites do have the commonalities and similar social class of the ant world. Termite colonies form millions of members with a caste society of workers, soldiers, kings, and queens. However, termites differ from ants in that they eat wood, and also the king and queen mate for life (a termite queen can live up to 45 years!). In ant colonies, the queen mates just once with the male(s) storing the gametes for life; the male ants die shortly after mating.

Termite Worker (Wingless termites look like white ants)

Termite Worker (Wingless termites look like white ants)

Ants and cockroaches may be a nuisance but termites are destroyers. Termites can severely damage the structure to a home and should be eliminated as soon as they are identified. One way to tell if you have termites are broken wings lining a windowsill; swarming termites are attracted to natural light. If you see the actual insect, take a close look at its wings to see if there are two pairs or just one and whether the waist is narrow or broad, and does it have the termite’s straight antennae or are the antennae bent like an ant’s?

By Donna Walker
Termite References
United States Agricultural Department – Agricultural Research Services
Natural History Museum of London
Wikipedia.org/wiki/Termite

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