What Are Termites?
Termites are soft-bodied insects belonging to the family 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.
They are sometimes called “white ants” but they are like ants only in that both species live in social colonies. Termites are among the most successful groups of insects on Earth, colonizing most landmasses except for Antarctica. Their colonies range in size from a few hundred individuals to enormous societies with several million individuals.
They live in the tropics and temperate countries and make various kinds of nests. Some make galleries in decaying tree trunks, some make nests below the ground, but the most spectacular are large structures built above ground called “termitaria”.
They are built from earth excavated below ground and cemented together by saliva. Some of these nests are 20 feet high and almost too hard to break open even with a pickaxe. The termite community is divided into four groups, but only two can breed.
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”. Each colony is founded by a “royal pair” and the Queen’s life is devoted to laying eggs. Termite queens have the longest lifespan of any insect in the world, with some queens reportedly living up to 30 to 50 years.
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.
Unlike ants, which undergo a complete metamorphosis, each individual termite goes through an incomplete metamorphosis proceeding through egg, nymph, and adult stages. Colonies are described as super organisms 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 dry wood termite (Cryptotermes brevis), are regarded as invasive species.