What are Termites? - Types & Characteristics

Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

Known as the 'silent destroyer,' termites are an old and well-established insect on Earth. In this lesson, we'll discuss what termites are, their characteristics, and their different types.

Pesky Pests

Living in the southern United States makes you familiar with all sorts of pests, especially insects. There are ants, palmetto bugs, and of course, termites, winged insects that live in colonies and feed on wood and plant matter. Since their diet consists of dead or decaying plant material, including things like the wood that your house may be built of, termites are a major concern. And what's worse is that you may not even know you have a termite infestation until the damage has already begun! Seeing a swarm or finding damage during construction in the house might be your first clue.

Termites may be considered pests because they can destroy homes, but they still fill a role on Earth by breaking down old, dead trees in nature. Are there termites hiding in your house? Get out your magnifying glass, and let's take a closer look at termites.

Termites are known for causing serious damage to houses
termite damage

Termite Characteristics

Termites live in large social groups called colonies. These colonies are hungry, too, eating 24 hours a day, every day. Termites aren't just abundant; they are also varied as there are about 2,000 known species on Earth. In the United States alone there are over 40 different species.

Formosan termites

Termites are insects, so they have body segments and six legs. They may also have wings, and the wings are all about the same length. Termites are often confused with ants, but you can tell the difference because an ant's front wings are longer than its hind wings. Also, a termite's antennae will come straight out of its head, while an ant's will bend at a right angle. Termites aren't very big, just ¼ - ½ inch in length. Termite kings and queens of some species may be longer though, up to a full inch. Termites are small, but because they are so plentiful, the total weight of all the termites is more than the total weight of all the humans on Earth!

The swarmers of the colony are the winged termites, and they are tasked with reproducing and creating new termite colonies. Worker termites, on the other hand, are tasked with, you guessed it, working. They are sterile, so they can't reproduce. But they make up the majority of the colony and are critical because they feed the colony. These are the ones that are in your walls feeding away. Swarmers outside your house are not a problem, but if you see swarmers in your house (or their wings, since they fall off quickly once inside), then you're dealing with an established colony.

A termite swarm outside is no problem, but inside your house is a big deal!
termite swarm

Types of Termites

There are several different types of termites. To make it easy, their names correspond with what they eat and/or where they live.

First are dampwood termites, which are some of the largest termites. As the name implies, they prefer to feed on moist or damp wood, and they also like to stay close to the ground. They don't have workers in their colonies, and they usually don't cause damage because the wood in your house is just too dry for their taste. However, if you have a leaky pipe creating some wet wood somewhere, you might spot these guys. They are more likely to be found in basements or bathrooms.

Up next are drywood termites. These form colonies of up to 2,500 individuals. Like dampwood termites, drywood termites don't have workers in their colonies. Instead they have false workers, which are juvenile termites in the colony who perform the same duties as workers (feeding the colony, caring for eggs). But unlike dampwood termites, these guys can do some serious damage to your house because they prefer to feed on dry wood, wallpaper, and even plastics and fabrics that are made of plant material. And this includes the beams, walls, attics, and other structural components of your house. Drywood termites are also known to inhabit furniture and will even eat up books.

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