How long can a termite live?

What’s a termite lifespan?

There’s no simple answer to this one. It depends. The species, life-type, wear and tear, the colony’s health–all these things affect the potential for a termite’s long life. A worker or soldier termite can live to about three years in my lab, but most probably only live a year or so in the wild. They can also get killed soon after starting work and so, on average, many only last a few months. A reproductive female, the termite queen is something quite different. In some mound-building species queens are reported to last more than 40 years, perhaps several decades more! The reproducing males also last a long time (pdf). This would likely make them the longest-living insects.

As usual, though, termite reality is stranger than we first thought. Imagine an amoeba, a superbly simple single-celled animal. If one splits (binary fission), producing two individuals, is the original one alive or dead? I think it is still alive. Do we think the same if the animal is multicellular and reproduces less simply? The issue arises with termites. Japanese and American researchers looking at the DNA of countless individual termites in a large number of colonies have shown that the some termites of the genus Reticulitermes, have queens that can reproduce themselves parthenogenetically (without using male input ~ see this pdf). Almost a self-clone. So the queen’s genes go marching on. Oddly, their research shows the male genes in the colony to be fairly constant, meaning that they have also likely discovered that kings (male reproductives) individually last longer than females.

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