Termites are notoriously some of the most destructive and invasive species of insects known to dwell in our homes. And termites are always hungry, so once these tiny invasive beasts are in, they can chew anything in front of them inside your walls and roofs, thus damaging the structural integrity of the building.
But termites aren’t vagabonds or rogue creatures. Instead, termites live in well-structured colonies, just like ants do. And for those who don’t know much about insect colonies, you might be surprised to learn about the sheer amount of organization within these tiny societies.
So if you’d like to declare war on these numerous savages, you’ll want to follow the standard advice of “know your enemy.” And we’re here to help with that, so follow along as we cover everything you need to know about termite colonies!
What Are The 3 Types Of Termites?
The three main types of termites are subterranean, drywood, and dampwood termites. And fortunately, all of them have self-explanatory names.
Subterranean termite colonies live in the soil and underground to find moisture, and they build enormous termite mounds of any type in the USA. They’re also the most destructive, but luckily, they’re not commonly found in households.
The most common subterranean termite is the Formosan subterranean termite which differs in shape but is still very destructive.
However, a thriving subterranean termite colony can still cause massive structural damage to a building over time. And in some rare cases, they keep chewing on the building’s structural integrity until it eventually collapses.
Moreover, subterranean termites build mud tubes that connect their colonies to food sources, such as wood, which gives them easy access to destroying infrastructure.
Subterranean termite colonies cause more than $5 billion in damages in the USA alone every year.
Unlike most other termite species, drywood termites don’t need moisture to survive, and they can easily live in dry areas and feed on drywood.
These invasive insects are the most commonly found termite species in American homes, and they often build their nests and colonies under hardwood floorboards or behind wooden walls.
And despite not needing moisture for survival, they’ll still prefer to take up shelter near a water source so that you might find them near a leaky pipe or a heater.
In their natural habitat, you’ll find drywood termite colonies in dead trees or fallen logs, especially near water sources such as rivers or ponds.
And although drywood termites are more common in households than their subterranean counterparts, they don’t cause nearly as much damage, thanks to their smaller population colonies. Still, this doesn’t mean you can ignore their presence in your house, and you should still get it checked at least once a year.
Dampwood termites are fairly similar to drywood termites, except in their need for moisture in the wood they live in and eat.
Moreover, dampwood termites are typically a bit larger than other termite species. As a result, they are much less invasive than their drywood siblings, despite not needing soil for survival because most artificial structures don’t have enough moisture to accommodate dampwood termites.
However, they still lurk around in some homes, especially in coastal states such as southern Florida and California.
What Is A Termite Colony?
Termites are anatomically related to cockroaches and thus fall under the same taxonomic order of Blattodea. And while termites and cockroaches are both social insects that rely on numbers to thrive, there are some differences between a termite colony and a cockroach colony.
A termite colony is more structured than a cockroach colony with a hierarchical caste system, meaning every termite is assigned its position in a caste (social class).
Moreover, labor is divided among castes so that each caste is specialized in their job to ensure efficiency, kind of similar to modern human society.
What termites do differently than humans is population control. Termites know that there’s a population “sweet spot” where there aren’t too many or too few termites in the colony, and they try to maintain that number.
If the population falls below that sweet spot, termites will start over-breeding to make up for it. However, if the colony is overpopulated, the termites select the weakest members of society and eat them until the colony is balanced again.
How Big Is A Colony Of Termites?
Speaking of population, you might be wondering what that sweet spot is in terms of numbers. As in, how big do termite colonies get, typically?
In terms of numbers, termite colonies vary widely depending on their situation. For example, some colonies will have only a few hundred or a few thousand termites, while others will have a giant population in the millions.
One of the most extensive termite colonies we’ve discovered is northeastern Brazil. With over 200 million termites, the colony is roughly the size of Great Britain. This ancient colony is believed to be nearly 4,000 years old, and its member termites have excavated so much soil that we could fit 4,000 Great Pyramids of Giza in the gaps.
However, this vast colony is a massive outlier as usually, a big colony would consist of a few million termites rather than 200.
On the other hand, drywood termites, which are more commonly found in wooden households than their subterranean counterparts, are different from normal termites.
Typically, drywood termite colonies take up shelter in trees or their fallen logs, but in many cases, they can also move into houses made of lumber.
Unlike other termites that can live in colonies of millions, drywood termite colonies are generally far smaller, with a population in the thousands. In fact, a typical drywood termite colony wouldn’t exceed 10,000 members.
How Deep Are Termite Colonies?
Subterranean termite colonies vary in depth based on the climate. For example, in colder climates, the nests can be as far below the ground as 20 feet, as the soil above the termites protects them from extreme weather.
However, the nests can be found “only” 6 feet underground in hotter climates.
What Does A Termite Colony Consist Of?
A termite colony consists of the royals, a queen (the prominent leader), which can grow up to 4-6 inches in length, and a king, with whom the queen mates.
Around the queen are her worker termites, which take care of her and feed her. You can quickly identify the queen and the workers around her by their sizes: the queen is about 10-20 times larger than the worker termites, and you’ll always see some around her.
There are also soldier termites, which guard the queen and the colony.
The Caste System In A Termite Colony
There’s a three-caste system in a typical termite colony with organized labor division and designated roles. The three castes are reproductive termites, worker termites, and soldier termites.
Some scholars include a fourth caste, the alates. However, most scholars agree that alates are in the same caste as reproductive termites since their primary purpose is to reproduce and branch into a new colony.
What Is The Role Of Each Caste Level Within The Termite Colony?
So let’s look at how the caste system works in a termite colony and the roles of each caste.
The “alpha” couple in a termite colony is the termite king and queen, which are also the primary productive couple, though the queen is the dominant figure in this relationship. The termite king and queen live in a royal chamber, where smaller worker termites take care of their well-being and feed them.
The queen is the largest termite in the colony, reaching up to 4-6 inches in length. In contrast, normal termites are usually around a quarter to a half of an inch long—about one-tenth to one-twentieth the size of the queen.
The queen is distinguishable by her prominent figure, compound eyes, and hardened shell. Furthermore, the queen’s belly is typically about 10-20 times larger than a typical termite’s since it’s consistently reproducing at a rapid rate, sometimes laying thousands of eggs in one day.
This makes the queen very easy to distinguish in a colony. However, for the queen, it also means she isn’t mobile at all and relies almost entirely on her workers to move her around if she needs it.
On the other hand, the king isn’t so prominent and is only slightly larger than normal worker termites.
The king and queen release chemical scents throughout the colony to let their designated subordinates know it’s time to mate and nest. This also prevents sterile termites from becoming reproductive and ruining the colony’s caste system.
At the start of the colony’s lifespan, the queen is often the only reproducer in the colony. However, as the population grows, the queen allows other termites, especially secondary and tertiary queens, to reproduce and expand the colony.
Sometimes, the queens even produce alates (adult termites) that they send off to other areas to form new colonies, thus expanding the queen’s influence. These alates, therefore, become the royalty of their newly formed colonies, and termite life goes on like this.
Worker And Soldier Termites
Worker and soldier termites, which are subordinate to the reproductive caste, are sterile, lacking fully developed sexual organs, are flightless, lack functional wings, and are often blind.
And although there isn’t much variance between workers and soldiers, their size determines their role in the caste system. Larger termites are designated as soldiers, while smaller ones are workers.
Termite workers typically make the most significant portion of the colony population and are tasked with collecting food to feed everyone in the colony and take care of them.
Moreover, workers are tasked with construction on the nest site and any required repairs.
Since workers are responsible for collecting food, they’re responsible for most of the mass structural destruction caused since they chew off wood most of the time.
Soldiers are selected for being larger in stature than workers and are tasked with defending the colony and the nest.
Despite being blind, soldiers can detect the presence of their enemies chemically and through smell, and they can use their long mandibles to attack. But, their job is to fend off attacks from ants most of the time.
Some soldier termites, significantly higher up the hierarchy, can even release toxins to trap enemies. But because the termites with chemical defenses don’t usually have potent mandibles, they leave their trapped enemies to their infantry comrades, which use their mandibles to snip their enemies in half or even behead them.
Now let’s go back to talking about queens since they’re easily the most important in a termite colony.
Can A Termite Colony Have More Than One Queen?
In some rare instances, especially when termite colonies are endangered and the probability of survival is low, there can be multiple queens in the colony, ranging from two and up to dozens.
When there are multiple queens, they all serve the functions of a primary queen and are the same size as her. Interestingly, the queens don’t seem to grow aggressive towards each other, and power struggles are sporadic.
However, typically, termite colonies only have one primary queen. However, depending on colony size, the queen may designate other secondary queens under her command to help her manage the colony.
These secondary queens often live far away from the main queen’s habitat. However, they are responsible for reproduction in that area so that the colony spreads over a wider distance.
What Happens If The Termite Queen Dies?
Depending on the termite species and the conditions in the colony, the death of a queen termite can either mean the end of the colony or continuation with a different queen.
If the termites are too attached to their queen, and they notice that she’s starting to die, they’ll keep grooming her, feeding her, and cleaning her until she’s gone.
Once the queen draws her terminal breath, the entire termite mound will slowly die out afterward since, to them, life doesn’t continue without the queen, which has been their mother and caretaker for their entire lives.
In other colonies, the queen’s death means that other reproductive termites can reproduce again until a secondary reproductive queen ascends to the throne.
How Do You Know If A House Has A Termite Queen?
Unfortunately, termite queens are often hiding somewhere deep in the colony, so they’re pretty hard to spot unless you delve that deep.
You can indirectly tell if there’s a termite queen in your house by her reproductive males. If you spot male termites carrying eggs around or fertilizing them, they’re most likely fertilizing the queen’s eggs.
If you somehow manage to spot the termite queen, you’ll easily identify her by her size. She’ll also look like a white-yellowish gooey sock or slug.
Finding the termite queen in your house is probably the most challenging part to do on your own, and if the colony is large enough, it’s probably impossible to find the termite queen without specialized equipment.
However, you can still try to find her. To do so, you can follow the worker termites, and they might lead you to the queen.
Before you attack the queen, you have to plan carefully since worker termites will quickly move her away as soon as they spot the slightest signs of danger.
You’ll also want to wear protective gear since you might deal with a horde of soldier termites trying to protect their queen swarming you.
One method you can try is by using bait. However, termites can’t detect toxins in the bait and will readily eat it and feed it to her.
However, it’s unlikely that one termite will survive enough to reach the queen after ingesting the poison, so your best hope at this point is that enough worker termites eat enough of the toxin that one of them inevitably reaches the queen and feeds her the deadly stuff killing her.
You can also try fumigation to kill off the queen and the entire colony. This is probably the most effective method since it uses large amounts of toxic fumes to poison the termites.
How Do Termite Colonies Start?
When a preexisting termite colony gets large enough, the queen might designate a few winged, fertile alates and instruct them to take off to form new termite colonies. These alates will leave their colony and look for a new spot that’s suitable for termite life.
Once the flying termites find a new spot to build their new foundation, they’ll land on that spot, shed their wings, build their chambers, and lay eggs there until they eventually hatch. And that’s how a colony typically starts.
However, not all colonies start with a winged termite, namely, subterranean termite colonies.
When a subterranean termite colony is short on food, some of its fertile members may wander off searching for food, and they can travel about 100 yards away from their colony and form a new one there.
Lastly, new termite colonies can also form as satellite colonies. That is, when the original colony gets too big, the queen sometimes designates some secondary queens to handle reproduction alongside her, and those secondaries can then branch out to manage new sub-colonies or new satellite colonies.
Can One Termite Start A Colony?
Depending on how you look at it, no or yes.
No, as in termites can’t reproduce asexually and start a new colony without a mating partner. A termite queen always has a king that helps her with reproduction, and so do her secondary and tertiary queens.
However, yes, in the sense that swarming fertile termites can branch off and start new colonies on their own.
How Long Does It Take For A Termite Colony To Form?
The time it takes for a colony to mature differs based on several conditions, such as the termite type, the presence of nutrients, and the climate.
Generally, subterranean termite colonies can mature in 6-7 years under normal conditions.
As for drywood, termite colonies can take up to 5 years to fully mature as a colony, even in ideal conditions.
How Long Does A Termite Colony Live?
As you might be able to guess, termite colonies range in their lifespans based on several conditions, such as the lifespan of their king and queen, the termite species itself, the presence of natural predators near the colony, and more.
Depending on the conditions, the queen can live anywhere from a decade to multiple decades. However, her subordinates don’t have such a long lifespan, and a single termite typically lives only 2-3 years.
Usually, subterranean termites survive the longest since they generally live away from households and under the ground. This means that subterranean termite colonies can live for centuries or even millennia in some rare cases, such as the mega-colony in Brazil we mentioned earlier.
How Do You Identify A Termite Colony?
There are a few signs to look out for when you’re searching for a termite colony. For example, the termites excavate crawlspaces and tunnels are classic signs of a termite colony. The tunnels will usually be about half an inch thick, and you might even spot some termites using the path.
Another classic sign is blistered wood. Do you recall when we talked about how termites are destructive to wood and chew away its integrity? The result is usually a thin and brittle plate of dark-colored wood that you can easily break away with a few taps.
Damaged wood can be so apparent that you can hear it underneath your feet. That’s because when termites do enough damage to wooden floorboards, they’ll start to squeak excessively, so be on the lookout for that as well.
And if your floor is warping or the tiles are loosening, it’s another sign of a termite invasion since these beasts can add moisture to your floor.
There are a few more gross ways that you’ll notice termite presence, and that’s when they show themselves to you. If the infestation is excessive, you might see flying termites swarm some places in your house. And even if you don’t see the termite swarmers, they tend to leave behind shed wings.
However, be careful as you might have winged ants instead of swarming termites in your home since both the ants and the termites shed their wings, so if you do find shed wings around, you might want to call a pest company to identify these and be sure since these two species differ in shape and could be easily identified by a professional.
Droppings are another way you can know that you have a termite colony/infestation in your home. Termites form extensive galleries and create tiny holes in them to get rid of their fecal pellets and keep their living places clean. These pellets are made of wood, have tiny sizes, and look like coffee grounds.
If you can’t find these signs in your house but still suspect that a termite colony is lurking, as a last resort, you can try using electronic devices that’ll help you indirectly detect the presence of termites.
You can try an acoustic emission detector to detect the sound of termites ripping wood apart. However, the detector has to be placed within a foot or two of the termites, and then the signs will show on the screen.
Microwave emitters are also used to directly detect the presence of termites through surfaces such as wood and tile.
And if there’s a small hole that you suspect the termites are using, you can use a borescope, which has a small tip and fiber-optic light that you can guide to see through the hole. Just remember that you might get a close-up look at the termites, so be ready to stomach that!
How Do You Get Rid of A Termite Colony?
With all this info about termite colonies and their destructive effect on households, especially wooden ones, you probably want to avoid having these parasitic termite colonies grow in your wood.
Instead of trying to kill off a termite colony on your own, you might consider contacting professional exterminators. That’s because most people aren’t well-versed on termite extermination (or extermination of any other insects, for that matter) and so wouldn’t know the best practices and tools to use for the job.
Termites and termite colonies are more challenging to kill off than many other insects because of their often large numbers, requiring specialized equipment and large amounts of liquid pesticides, sometimes in the hundreds of gallons.
However, doing termite control yourself can save you some money if done right, though keep in mind that it’s very labor-intensive and time-consuming.
So if you’d like to venture into killing off termite colonies on your own, then read on as there are some DIY pest control methods you can try to exterminate termites.
For example, there are many commercially available barrier toxins that you can buy and spread around the exterior of your home to prevent subterranean termites, or other termite species, from sneaking into your interior.
But if the termite nest or colony is already established in your house, then it’s time to move on to termite control products. For instance, there are many baits you can buy that you’ll spread on the floor or even sometimes inject into the infested wood.
Once the termites eat the poison, they’ll go back to their colonies, where they’ll infect other termites and hopefully kill most of them off. But note that this process can take a few weeks, which is a typical period in the insect extermination industry.
How Do You Kill A Subterranean Termite Colony?
Subterranean termite colonies are the ones you don’t want in your house more than other species since they can reproduce in huge numbers and live in hard-to-reach places. But if they take up shelter in your home, there are a few DIY measures you can take.
Since subterranean termites move around in the soil, the first preemptive measure you should take is to create a chemical barrier in the dirt outside your home, which can block out subterranean termites from invading.
This procedure is already required in many states before the house is constructed. But for older homes, the insecticides may have already been used up or decayed, and you’ll need to re-apply it yourself.
To do this, you need a spray bottle and a liquid insecticide. Ideally, you should also have some holes in the soil around your house. Then you can spray the toxin in these holes and on the soil.
If the subterranean termite colony is already established in your house, then it’s time to plan your attack. However, since these colonies typically have a huge population, an insecticide probably won’t be the most effective way.
Instead, you’ll want to use termite baits. As we mentioned above, fortunately, termites can’t smell or detect toxins in the bait, so they’ll eat it anyway and go back to the colonies carrying a contagious poison that they’ll spread around like a virus and hopefully infect the entire colony.
You can set these baits up inside and outside your house to ensure as much effectiveness as possible.
How Long Does It Take To Kill A Termite Colony?
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither are termites exterminated in such a short period.
Depending on the size of your home and the severity of the infestation, the process can take anywhere from a few days to a few months.
If you hire a professional exterminator, it’ll typically take a few days for them to do their work and then a few more days for the termites to be completely gone.
If you use termite bait, you’ll probably want to move out for a few weeks since it can take up to two weeks, on average, to take full effect.
However, if you’re killing off a subterranean termite colony, it might take much longer since subterranean termites live underground. The worst-case scenario is about six months of extermination.
To Wrap Up
There are three types of termites: subterranean, drywood, and dampwood termites. You’ll want to avoid all of them in your home because of the serious damage they cause to wooden structures.
And now that you know all the info about termite colonies and the signs you should be on the lookout for, be sure to immediately contact a pest control company if you find any of these to have a termite inspection of your home.