Termites are typically known as wood-eaters, but did you know they have also earned the title of the “silent destroyer”? Read all about the different types of termites, their characteristics, and how to identify them.
By looking at a single termite, one wouldn’t expect it to be even remotely close to being dangerous or menacing; however, massive colonies of termites have been found to inflict serious structural damage in a lot of people’s homes.
They have also been given the title of “silent destroyers” due to their unbelievable ability to chew through wood, furniture, flooring, wallpapers, and fence posts, and that too, undetected! You will be surprised to hear that in a given year, termites cause more than $5 billion in property and structural damage each year.
Table of Contents
Termites were once known as the “white ant” and were widely confused with an actual ant. However, with the advent of technology and the use of microscopes, people were able to prove that there are several distinguishing features between termites and ants. These were typical termite features that include a broad abdomen, straight termite antennae, and equal sized wings.
Fascinatingly though, due to the million dollars worth of destruction caused by termites each year, they are considered truly “novel” insects and have been ranked as the most successful insect pests to deal with.
Termite Roles within the Nest (Chart)
Anatomy of Termites
Types of Termites
Although there are up to 2000 species of termites found on the planet Earth, the following are the most common and popular ones that pose the greatest threat and risk to most homeowners in the United States.
As the name suggests, these termites live underground and are typically found across every state in the US except Alaska. Subterranean termites build underground colonies that often contain more than 2 million members. An interesting fact about these termites is that they have to live in damp conditions in order to survive, so they build mud tunnels that are specifically called “mud tubes” to be able to stay damp and travel from place to place. These tubes also allow them to protect themselves from open air and find accessible food sources.
Their typical food sources include fence posts, trees, and timbers in houses. These termites are known for their rapid wood-eating abilities which make them the most destructive kinds of termites. One way to tell if the wood in your home has been infested by subterranean termites is by the appearance of the holes on the damaged wood that appear like a honeycomb.
Subterranean termites are commonly divided into 4 groups in order to easily identify them. The “Alates (swarmers)” sport a dark brown or black color and are almost half an inch long with two pairs of wings while the “workers” are almost one-fourth inch or less in length, have no wings and are ream in color. Then there is a group called “soldiers” with creamy-white bodies, brownish heads, and they have large jaws and no wings.
There are six main categories or species of subterranean termites that are commonly found in the United States.
The Arid-land Subterranean termites are typically found in the regions including the West Coast, Midwest, Southwest, South, and the Rocky Mountain States.
They have also been divided into 3 main castes that include “adult reproductives” that are usually black or dark brown in color and are half an inch long with clear wings. The “soldiers” have long mandibles to fight off predators and are the same size as the adult caste. Finally, the “worker” caste that has an appearance similar to light colored ants.
These termites usually attack types of greasewood and creosote although they do resort to attacking structures when their natural wood sources are inaccessible or are removed.
Some common signs that indicate infestation by arid-land termites include piles of shed wings often near windows and doors, mud tubes in houses that have peeling paint and swarming termites.
These termites are commonly found in regions of Southern Arizona and Southeastern California.
They are normally very small in size and can easily thrive in dry conditions. The “workers” are typically cream colored and have an appearance similar to that of ants, “soldiers” are fairly large with big mouthparts and heads shaped like rectangles, and “adult reproductives” are half an inch long with wings and sport a yellowish-brown color.
The survival of desert subterranean termites largely depends on food sources like structural timbers in houses, utility poles and woody plants like cactus. Their colonies are usually massive, often containing more than 300,000 members.
These termites also build mud tubes for protection and prefer to search for food in moist soils and areas with shades soils.
Common infestation signs of these termites include the sudden appearance of swarming termites and mud tubes. They usually attack varieties of softwood that leaves a honeycombed print, and the damaged wood often contains a hollow section filled with mud.
The Eastern Subterranean termites are commonly found in parts of New England, East Coast, and the Midwest.
These are more of an “organized” and “functional” group of termites where every member of their colony carries out a specific function in order to maintain the success of the entire colony. The “workers” in this species basically help feed the whole colony and sport a cream color. The “alates” are usually winged and are known to leave the existing in order to build a whole new colony. The “soldiers” are like the colony’s main protectors that use their large jaws fight intruders, and they are typically one-fourth inch long.
They are also quite popular for their destructive habits, and their feeding abilities are so dangerous that it can seriously weaken building structures, causing the entire framing to collapse.
Typical infestation signs include the presence of mud tubes and shed wings usually near windows, doors, and sources of light.
Dark Southeastern Subterranean
Commonly found in the East Coast regions of New Jersey, Virginia, North Carolina, Connecticut, Maryland, and Rhodes Island, this dark southeastern subterranean species of termites is a one-third inch long and usually has a dark brown or black body.
The “soldier” caste has large mouthparts with rectangular shaped heads and is known as the colony’s defenders. The “workers” resemble cream colored ants and are mainly responsible for colony maintenance. The “reproductive” caste expands the colonies by laying eggs and swarming.
These termites like to feed on plywood, pine wood and structural lumber for survival. Common infestation signs include honeycombed damaged wood, partially digested wood and presence of their typical mud tubes.
These termite species are found in Nevada, California, and Washington. Their “workers” are similar in appearance to cream colored ants while the “soldiers” have pincher-like large mouthparts and rectangular heads. The “swarmers” have two large pairs of wings and dark brown bodies.
The western subterranean termites have a “Queen” termite that serves the purpose of a reproductive engine in the colony and has the potential to produce even more than 2000 eggs per day.
Interestingly, these termites are not picky food-eaters and usually eat decayed wood, fallen trees, and stumps. However, they do have quite a peculiar feeding system. They follow a shared feeding system called “trophallax” which involves a give-and-take process between colony members. This is basically marked by an exchange of gut contents through which nutrients are efficiently utilized.
Common signs of infestation include partially digested wood, damaged wood with mud-packed hollow sections and a honeycomb appearance in the infested wood.
Dampwood termites are usually found in Northern California, Washington, Northern Nevada, and Montana. They have the ability to survive without soil, so they prefer areas with woodpiles, decaying wood, and wood with an adequate amount of moisture. This is also why they are called “dampwood”, due to the fact they infest wood that has a high moisture content.
They are fairly larger than other termites and often have reddish-brown heads.
Dampwood termites are also divided into the following sub-categories.
This group is found in California, Texas and New Mexico. The best way to identify their presence is the appearance of the infested wood. The tunnels that they create within the wood have super smooth walls that look like they have been smoothed-out with sandpaper. These termites have spotted abdomens and often occur in variations of brown and yellow. They like to eat damp wood and are likely to be found in wet wood structures.
As the name suggests, these termites are found in the Florida Keys and are supposedly the largest termites in the Eastern United States. Their survival hugely depends on high humidity levels and water accessibility which is why they prefer living in moist woods. Instead of tunneling into the soil, Florida dampwood termites build galleries through the woods that they infest. Common signs of infestation by these termites include shed wings, the presence of the alates caste, and piles of fecal pellets.
The Nevada Dampwood termites are distributed across Nevada, Montana, and Idaho. Their primary castes include “nymphs” that have a cream color, the “soldiers” that have large mouthparts to defend from predators and brownish heads, and the “alates” that have dark brown bodies and wings and their length goes up to ¾ inches long.
There are likely to feed on any kind of wood present in structures or soils that have high moisture content and areas that are prone to tidal flooding. Some of their mature and well-developed colonies contain more than 4000 individuals; however; they can always vary in size.
These termites are found in mainly all of Florida, parts of California, Texas, Mexico and Alabama. They are known to attack furniture, flooring, wood structures, and frames which are also their main sources of nutrients. Unlike many other groups of termites, drywood termites don’t require as much moisture from the soil for their survival. They also have large mouthparts and large sets of wings.
Drywood termites are further divided into two categories.
They are found in California and Arizona and usually form small colonies with about 3000 members. The “soldier” caste has two large mouthparts a brown colored head. The “alates” have a half an inch long body with smokey-black wings. They commonly infest exposed wood like attics, window frames, and doors.
Signs of infestation include shed wings, piles of fecal pellets and blisters of the damaged wood surface.
These termites are found in Florida, Georgia, Texas, and Alabama. They are quite similar in appearance to other drywood species which is best associated with the way they infest the wood that is, eating across the grain.
These termites can survive without a large amount of moisture, and their colonies are not as huge as those of the subterranean species. Their common signs of infestation include dead termite swarmers, shed wings, and fecal pellets.
These termites are native to the Caribbean and were first found in the United States sometime during the year 2001, but were then apparently eradicated from there in the year 2003. Initially, they were referred to as “tree termites” but were later renamed to “Conehead termites” in order to eliminate the fallacy that these species were only found in trees.
Unlike several other termite species, the Conehead termites are actually found above the ground where they rummage for food on the ground as ants do. They have quite a reputation for being ‘aggressive’ termites that cause mass destruction in very short periods of time.
The name “conehead” comes from the fact that these termites have a cone-shaped head which is usually dark in color. The total conehead termite colony majorly consists of “soldiers” that make up about 30% of the entire colony. Another distinguishing feature of these termites is that they build more extensive and wider tunnels as compared to the subterranean species. They also build these their nests out in the open that are often round or oval in shape and are fairly large and dark-brown in color.
The conehead termites prefer to eat anything that has cellulose in it. Some of their common food sources include furniture, paper products, structural timber, trees, roots, shrubs, and fence posts.
Typical infestation signs include extensive tunnel networks that go all the way from the nests to their feeding locations.
This species of termites is commonly found in Arizona, West Texas, and New Mexico regions.
The “workers” colony of the desert termites are found in great abundance and are the major food providers. The “soldier” caste serves the main purpose of protecting the termite colony from predators, and they have large teeth-like mouthparts. The “reproductives”, as the name suggests, are the reproducers with wings and have a light-brown body that is usually half an inch long.
Desert termites have a tendency to dry out and lose moisture. So, one of their biggest survival tactics includes building a moisture-retentive sheet or tube that is made out of the carton. Carton is basically a mixture that contains feces and moist soil that is then bonded together with the help of the termite’s saliva. These termites usually tunnel and forage in or on the soil which helps make the soil more porous.
They like to feed on decomposed, living or dead plant material and prefer to live within dead or living grasses. Common infestation signs of desert termites include swarming soldier termites and layers of their protective sheets or tubes within the soil.
These termites have originated from China and are commonly found in southern U.S. regions such as Georgia, Hawaii, Texas, Mississippi, California, and Tennessee. They are popularly known as the most devious, aggressive and voracious of termite species which makes them extremely difficult to control once they form a colony or infest a structure.
Formosan termites build huge underground colonies that also include intricate mud nests that are well-contained within a walled structure.
There are over 2000 species of desert termites that are known to science which occur in three major castes. The “workers” are quite similar to the workers of the other termite groups while the “alates” are about half an inch long and sport a yellowish-brown color. They also have distinctive transparent wings that are covered with a thick layer of small hairs. The “soldiers” on the other hand have an oblong-shaped head and tend to be more aggressive than other termites when protecting their colony from danger.
Because their colonies are large, they are able to consume a great amount of wood compared to other termite colonies.
Whichever part of the world you live in, it is always suggested to have any leaks in your home fixed immediately, ensure that there is no amount of wood debris next to or near your house, and any openings to the house are sealed that may provide access for termites to enter in.