Fun and amusing termite questions. See also Dr Don’s Bizarre Termite Page

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Fun, amusing or just plain odd things about termites
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  • 1. Do termites bite?

    Can termites spread disease?

    Yes, termites do bite people but only if you get them angry. Most termites have to be biting on thin skin (like between your fingers or similar) before you'll even be able to notice their grim determination. They don't set out to bite people, but they will bite in defense and they do tend to hang on. The bites of bigger species like Mastotermes, Macrotermes and some dampwood termites are quite easily noticed. I've seen small blood marks from a Mastotermes bite near a technician's navel. Strangely, it is much more often the meek-looking workers that bite (me) than the big-jawed, heavy-set, scary-looking soldier termites. Alates (swarmers) may have bitten me. I've never noticed.

    As for disease, there's no available evidence to suggest that termite bites have ever transferred anything to humans. They don't remain sensitive and never seem to swell.

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  • 2. 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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  • 3. Where did the symbiotic thingies that live in termite's intestines come from?

    Like, where did they live before there were termites to live in?

    Termites are just cockroaches that have learned to cooperate very well. They are thought to have begun as something like the wood-feeding cockroach genus Cryptocercus. The microbes that live so successfully in their guts are derived from similar free-living forms in rotting logs that get eaten when cockroaches eat the rot.  So both the ancestoral microbes and the ancestoral cockroaches were living in logs and soil well before termites came about.  You can imagine a termite as a streamlined cockroach shaped by the needs and profit of the microbes as well as the benefits of living in social groups. Over time, the gut organisms became adapted to their unique habitat and co-evolved tightly with their hosts to the point that most are critical for the termites' success.

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  • 4. Why do all termite Genera have names ending in -termes?

    They don't, just the vast majority of them.

    Termite scientists are a fairly conservative lot, and like patterns. Termes is a Latin word meaning wood worm. It is a widely followed convention that the genera of termites be given names with -termes at the end, but it isn't required by the rules of naming animals. Just makes things easier I guess. Some genera don't. This is because the taxonomist who authored them broke with convention. The best know of these is Zootermopsis, the dampwood termites of North America.

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  • 5. What are termites? 2~~Nerdy version

    Coptotermes lacteus exposed in their moundTermites belong to the Order Blattodea (Pronounced Blat-oh-dee-a) , which they share with the cockroaches, and they sit in the infraorder Isoptera (Pronounced Eye-sop-terra).  Previoulsy, the termites (before nucleic acids took over taxonomy)  had their own full order, but were later found to sit within the spread of the cockroaches.  That name came form the Greek, Iso meaning equal and pteron, meaning wing. The name referred to the wings of the reproductive caste, which isn't very helpful as most termites are plain workers that never get to grow wings. There are two pairs of wings, with the front pair the same size and shape as the hind pair. The name termite comes from the Latin word termes meaning woodworm (which probably covered some beetle larvae as well). See also here.

    Drawing of a Reticulitermes flavipes alateTermites are small, pale to whitish, soft-bodied social insects living in a nest or colony system. They all feed mostly on plant fibre (cellulose). The colony is divided into castes, which do different jobs and mostly also look a bit different.  The most numerous worker caste is relatively undifferentiated and performs much of the colony work, there is a specialised soldier caste with head and jaw structures differentiated with stronger features and often mouthparts more suited to defence than feeding. The reproductive caste, known as alates (winged ones) are produced when nymphs mature to develop wings and a generally darker colouring. Metamorphosis is gradual (there is no pupal stage)
    The head is rounded and eyes generally absent except in the reproductive caste (and rarely in soldiers), antennae are beaded ('moniliform') with more than ten obvious beads, wings are also absent except in the reproductive caste. They all have strong chewing mouthparts and can broadly be separated by looking at the patterns of their tiny teeth (not like ours, more like saw teeth).

    Termite jaw close up
    A close up of the jaw of Reticulitermes flavipes by David Mora del Pozo,
    Post-flight female of Coptotermes lacteus signalling for a mate. Note wings already discarded.
    Female Coptotermes lacteus signalling for a mate. Near Walhalla, Victoria, on canvas.
    The wings are deciduous, shed shortly afternuptial flight through breakage at a suture near point of attachment (hence de-alate), leaving small scales which persist. Termites are weak fliers, flights occur only under favourable conditions: nearly still air, high humidity and with falling barometric pressure indicating a likelihood of following rain. No constriction of the abdomen (as in ants, bees and wasps). Here's a similar description at the University of Delaware

    a worker termiteTermites also behave in ways that makes them easy to identify. For a start, nearly every type live completely in the dark (except when building or when the winged ones are flying), so you usually only see them when something is broken or open. Once exposed, they will try to follow their scent trails home. If these are broken they just wander around looking lost or squeeze into any gap they can find.


    Drawing of a Coptotermes soldier termiteMost species of termites have what is called a soldier caste. These grow strong heads, often much darker than those of the other termites. Very often, these strong heads also have big jaws. If you can find some of these among you termites, it makes the job of identifying the species much easier. Soldiers may be rare, only a few percent of the population, so look carefully.

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  • 6. Who runs the colony?
    Che Guevara
    Fearless leader

    Most people will tell you that a termite Queen rules her colony. I think that's a figment of their paradigm (way of looking at things). Sure the primary reproductive is central to the colony, and the laying of eggs is particularly important to colony survival, but to believe that she sits (locked) in her Royal Cell, exuding chemicals which neatly control the behaviour of each and every termite is a little far fetched. Rather, the termite colony is a form of exquisite chaos, much like the way we drive cars on roads. There are some basic traffic laws which are mostly followed, but rigid compliance only occurs in the presence of threat (police). Still, there are few accidents, and despite the individual will, things generally work out OK. Of course if one big traffic cop was trying to coordinate everything with explicit instructions to thousands of cars at once -- things could get ugly..

    Termites in the colony ebb and flow. Like us, they take on different roles as they mature. Unlike us (perhaps, unlike us after we reach adulthood), termites are strong followers. They follow the group, being strongly attracted to scents which are exuded from the underside of the belly. Thus the more termites walking a path, the more attractive that path becomes. So a simple positive feedback recruits more termites to a good food source. When a bee finds a good food source she (all the workers of the Hymenoptera {Ants, bees & wasps} are female, whereas a foraging termite can be of either sex), she returns to the hive and performs an elegant dance which recruits other workers to the same spot. What happens with termites? They are blind, so the dance is no use. Do they smell the breath {termites don't really breath through their mouths}, sniff the bottom like dogs? Perhaps.

    Things are more complicated than this simple positive feedback, because termites from a single colony forage in many areas at once, and can only work if there are negative feedback mechanisms to balance the positive ones. If not, as in Resnick's simple model (pdf), all the termites would feed at the one source. Besides feeding on optimal food sources, termites tend the young, construct and maintain the nest, defend it against predators, collect water, humidify and condition the nest atmosphere, control unwanted microbes and tend or farm others.

    The termite colony is indeed a site of complex behaviours, but these are emergent behaviours, arising as patterns as the individual termites go about, governed by simple rules. It's true that the primary reproductive plays a disproportionate role in the determinant of overall colony behaviour, but her influence on the moment by moment activity of any termite is probably no stronger than your head of state's influence upon what you are doing right now. And besides, termite families are rarely simple. Colonies can be more like communes with gangs of more closely related termites--still part of the same colony--tending to hang out and feed separately. It gets complex. Enough said.

    Copyright © 1996-2016 Don Ewart Created, Saturday, 17 February 1996
    Most recent code revision March 5 2016

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