Pest Library: Termites
Termites are eusocial insects that are classified at the taxonomic rank of infraorder Isoptera, or as epifamily Termitoidae within the cockroach order Blattodea. Termites were once classified in a separate order from cockroaches, but recent phylogenetic studies indicate that they evolved from close ancestors of cockroaches during the Jurassic or Triassic. However, the first termites possibly emerged during the Permian or even the Carboniferous. About 3,106 species are currently described, with a few hundred more left to be described. Although these insects are often called “white ants”, they are not ants.
Like ants and some bees and wasps from the separate order Hymenoptera, termites divide labour among castes consisting of sterile male and female “workers” and “soldiers”. All colonies have fertile males called “kings” and one or more fertile females called “queens”. Termites mostly feed on dead plant material and cellulose, generally in the form of wood, leaf litter, soil, or animal dung. Termites are major detritivores, particularly in the subtropical and tropical regions, and their recycling of wood and plant matter is of considerable ecological importance.
Termites are among the most successful groups of insects on Earth, colonising most landmasses except for Antarctica. Their colonies range in size from a few hundred individuals to enormous societies with several million individuals. Termite queens have the longest lifespan of any insect in the world, with some queens reportedly living up to 30 to 50 years. Unlike ants, which undergo a complete metamorphosis, each individual termite goes through an incomplete metamorphosis that proceeds through egg, nymph, and adult stages. Colonies are described as superorganisms because the termites form part of a self-regulating entity: the colony itself.
Termites are a delicacy in the diet of some human cultures and are used in many traditional medicines. Several hundred species are economically significant as pests that can cause serious damage to buildings, crops, or plantation forests. Some species, such as the West Indian drywood termite (Cryptotermes brevis), are regarded as invasive species.
Owing to their wood-eating habits, many termite species can do great damage to unprotected buildings and other wooden structures. Their habit of remaining concealed often results in their presence being undetected until the timbers are severely damaged, leaving a thin layer of a wall that protects them from the environment. Of the 3,106 species known, only 183 species cause damage; 83 species cause significant damage to wooden structures. In North America, nine subterranean species are pests. Among the termite genera, Coptotermes has the highest number of pest species of any genus, with 28 species known to cause damage. Less than 10% of drywood termites are pests, but they infect wooden structures and furniture in tropical, subtropical and other regions. Dampwood termites only attack lumber material exposed to rainfall or soil.
Drywood termites thrive in warm climates, and human activities can enable them to invade homes since they can be transported through contaminated goods, containers and ships. Colonies of termites have been seen thriving in warm buildings located in cold regions. Some termites are considered invasive species.
In addition to causing damage to buildings, termites can also damage food crops. Termites may attack trees whose resistance to damage is low but generally ignore fast-growing plants. Most attacks occur at harvest time; crops and trees are attacked during the dry season.
The damage caused by termites costs the southwestern United States approximately $1.5 billion each year in wood structure damage, but the true cost of damage worldwide cannot be determined. Drywood termites are responsible for a large proportion of the damage caused by termites.
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