Termites

Termites are among the most sinister pests to humans due to their ability to destroy the very foundations of our homes. Often called the “silent destroyers”, termites cause more damage to homes in Australia than fire, flood and storm combined.

Severe termite damage has been on the rise in Australia since 1995, when organochlorine treatments – basically, long-lasting soil barrier chemicals that protected homes from termite attack – were banned from use because of their environmental impact.

Built-up urban areas are at particular risk; one in three homes in the Hills district have some form of termite activity, and these numbers are quite similar throughout urban Australia.

Types of termites

There are three main categories of termites that cause damage to homes in Australia. These are:

    • Subterranean termites
    • Drywood termites
    • Dampwood termites

Subterranean termites

Subterranean termites account for some 95 per cent of all termite destruction. They do not live within the wood from which they feed; rather, they live in the soil, building mud tunnels to feed from wood sources above the ground. Additionally, subterranean termites won’t travel farther than 130 feet in search of food. For this reason, on some properties, subterranean termites could be present without posing a threat to the home.

Drywood termites

Unlike subterranean termites, drywood termites live within the wood from which they feed; they do not require extra moisture from soil. Drywood termites prefer warmer climates and as such are primarily found in tropical areas. However, furniture removal means they can be transported anywhere in the country; what’s more, they will travel much further from their colonies in search of food.

Dampwood termites

These are the least dangerous type of termites that can be found in Australia. Dampwood termites feed on damp and rotten wood and will generally be found in wood piles outside your home, in rotten or wet siding or roof shingles, and under sinks in the wood of wet cabinets (due to plumbing leaks).

Despite the differences between types, all termites have four standard requirements in order to survive: food, moisture, shelter, and optimal temperature. Unfortunately, pretty much all homes can provide these ideal conditions.

Termite colonies and castes

Termites exist within complex and astounding colonies that are separated into five distinct castes: queen, king, workers, alates and soldiers. Understanding the role of each caste is crucial to understanding the effects and

dangers of termite infestation in your home.

Queen

The primary (often sole) reproductive female, the queen’s role is to lay eggs for her colony. She’s very good at it, too: she can lay over 1,000 in a single day. In more mature colonies, there may be supplemental reproductive termites also producing eggs. Additionally, the queen is believed to emit pheromones that dictate the roles each member of her colony will play.

King

Prior to the establishment of the new colony, the king emerged from his parent colony with his bride (the would-be queen) on the hunt to find a new place to build a nest. Hundreds of thousands of others attempted the same, but the majority of them died in the process. With a new nest established, the king helps raise the first generation of offspring; after that, his sole role is to help with reproduction.

Workers

The majority of termites in a colony are workers, and these are the ones that do all the damage to your home. White in colour, their mouths are capable of chewing wood, and they build and maintain the mud tunnels that serve as bridges between the colony and the wood they consume. Workers will also bring food back to the colony to feed the other castes. They are sterile, so they cannot reproduce.

Alates

Winged termites that leave parent colonies in swarms after several years to establish new nests. For this reason, they are often called “swarmers” and are black in colour (though their wings are white). Most alates die and shed their wings in their search for a new home, but the survivors become kings and queens of new colonies and begin reproducing. If you spot piles of shed wings in your home, this is a good sign that a termite colony has been existence on your property for several years.

Soldiers

These sterile termites exist only in mature colonies. Their role is to protect the colony from predators – generally other insects, such as ants, spiders and nematodes (more on that below). Yellow-brown in colour, soldiers have powerful mandibles that are adapted for fighting. They cannot chew through wood, though.

Queen Termite
Queen Termite
King Termite
King Termite
Alate/Swarmer Termite
Alate/Swarmer Termite
Worker Termite
Worker Termite
Soldier Termite
Soldier Termite

The life cycle of termites

All new termite colonies emerge from a parent colony after what is known as a ‘colonising flight’. This is when the alates – winged termites capable of reproduction – leave the colony in swarms with the aim of establishing their own nest. It happens annually; usually around November and December each year, when conditions are ideal.

Alates are not strong flyers and wind plays a critical role in their dispersal. As such, most alates will die during the flight. However, some alates survive and settle down at a suitable site to set up their new colony. These alates will become queen and king and begin reproductive duties.

The queen lays over 1,000 eggs per day, and after a few weeks those eggs hatch into pale, white larvae. When they develop into adults, the pheromones emitted by the queen dictate to which cast the new termites belong – workers, alates or soldiers. The majority will be workers, and soldiers probably won’t emerge until the colony is much older.

The lifespan of workers and soldiers are short; they will live one or two years at most. However, while most alates will die on their colonising flight, queens and kings live much longer – in some cases, for as many as 40 years. And yet, it only takes around three to five years for a termite colony to become large enough to become destructive to your property.

Termite feeding habits

While many people believe that termites feed exclusively on wood, this is not true. Rather, termites feed on materials that contain cellulose – and wood just happens to be one of the most common of these. Mature termites have protozoa (one-celled organisms) in their digestive tracts that digest cellulose, breaking it down into substances that are easily absorbed by the termite’s digestive system before returning the cellulosic materials to the soil and atmosphere.

Termite colonies require roughly one cubic foot of wood per year to satisfy their hunger; while grass, leaf mould, manure, algae, and soil can also satisfy their diet, many termite colonies will feed on a wooden home structure exclusively if they have access. In these situations, the damage can be incredibly severe over time.

Natural enemies of termites

While humans have developed many effective methods for combating termites, these pests also have many natural enemies, including:

Ants

Even though they look quite similar, ants and termites are natural enemies, and colonies that come upon each other will turn hostile. Ants are the stronger of the two creatures and normally emerge victorious from these conflicts; they are even known to raid termite colonies and use them as a source of food.

Spiders

Spiders are another natural enemy of termites, though they do not attack their colonies like ants do; rather, spiders catch flying alates in their webs during a swarm and eat them. In this way, spiders can help prevent termites from forming new colonies.

Nematodes

Otherwise known as roundworms, nematodes are microscopic worms that are capable of infecting termites, eating them from the inside out.

While humans tend to view termites as nothing more than terrible pests due to the damage they can cause our homes, in truth they perform a critical role in the wider biosphere – a role they perform more effectively than almost any other organism on the planet.

Termites are detritivores – which basically means they feed on detritus, or decomposing plant matter such as dead trees, fallen limbs, and stumps. Without termites and other detritivores, the earth’s surface would be littered with dead plants that would lie rotting for years.

Termites feed on this detritus and recycle the nutrients back into the environment. In doing so, they have many important effects:

    • Improving soil fertility
    • Breaking down soil particles to help with air circulation
    • Helping with water absorption by breaking down compact soils

In the end, termites are crucial to the environment and have been for hundreds of millions of years. It is only because we began to build homes with the materials on which they feed that termites became such a widely feared pest.

That said, if a termite infestation is threatening your home, there is no reason for pause: contact KR Pest Control today to rid your home of termites in an effective and environmentally responsible way.