WHAT IS A TERMITE?
So often called ‘white ants’ due to the colour of their bodies – termites are amazing and a wonder of creation. Termites are in fact not an ant at all! An insect belonging to the same order (Blattodea) as cockroaches. As an insect termites have 6 legs and it’s body divided into 3 main parts: head, thorax and abdomen. Starting at the head we see a pair of antennae made of what seems to be little bead-like segments. At the business end of the head, there are a set of mandibles used for eating, fighting and defence. On their bodies are tactile hairs and other sensory organs designed to detect stimulus from the environment around them, touch, pressure, odour and taste.
This caste make up most of the numbers and this is the group that eats cellulose based materials such as wood. Workers are extremely pale, very soft bodied and their bodies can dry out very quickly (desiccation) which is why worker termites survive by living in subterranean environments so as to maintain body moisture. Even though the body of this termite is quite fragile, it’s business end is equipped with hardened mouthparts designed for chewing through hard items and it is extremely efficient.
The worker termite role
A worker termite can be either male or female, interestingly, the worker is completely blind. The worker caste is non reproductive, does not have wings and can be either male or female. The worker caste carries the workload of the entire colony, from caring for eggs and the young, to constructing the amazing tunnel systems, feeding the colony, repairing damage to the nest, expanding the nest through excavation activities, grooming during molting and even aiding the Soldiers to defend the nest where needed. Workers lives are all but over after 2 years after they reach maturity after 12 months. Worker termites are just incredible creatures.
The reproductives as the name implies produce all termite offspring in the nest/colony. There are Primary Reproductives in the nest known as the King and Queen and there are Secondary Reproductives. The King and Queen were once swarmers and are usually the termites who established the colony.
There is usually only one set of Primary Reproductives unless the King or Queen dies or is cut off from the main nest then a secondary reproductive will be produced. The Secondary Reproductives, once a colony is fully established are usually responsible for most of the reproductive activity. The Queen has the ability to produce more eggs than an individual Secondary, however the sheer numbers of secondaries soon exponentially grows the colony
As probably suggested by the name, the solider caste job is primarily the defence of the colony. They are equipped with some pretty amazing weapons in the form of their two large mandibles. These jaws are extremely sharp and powerful and they are used to slash, to crush, to puncture and to cut their enemies. They are attached to hardened heads depending on the species of difference shapes and sizes.
Protecting the nest
Some species have been known to literally ‘use their heads’ to stick in small holes in the tunnels. Like the worker they are completely blind which makes what they do even more incredible. The Soldiers are selfless creatures who will sacrifice themselves in the defence of the nest, positioning themselves at any breach in the nest, even using their dead bodies to block up a breach. They will stand guard over new openings, new workings and when the reproductives take flight in their mass swarming exodus. They are truly amazing with some species having the ability to shoot defensive secretions up to 25mm away from their bodies.It would be the equivalent of a human shooting 20 litres of fluid up to 4 metres away! Some species also bang or rattle their very hard heads against the nest or tube walls in order to let the nest know there could be a problem. A lot of people can actually hear termites at night or when they walk through a house infested with termites due to the soldiers very audible alarms. Even with those hardened heads and their weaponry, their jaws are not designed for eating wood and the workers feed them with liquid sustenance.
The mass exodus to create a new nest
At a certain time of the year, (usually during Summer and at most times triggered in Tropical environments such as North Queensland when it rains, usually at night) when a colony becomes large enough it begins to produce extremly large numbers of reproductives nymphs. Both male and female – these can be identified through their wing buds and may molt into winged termites, both male and female – both sexually mature. Most commonly known as Alates, (winged ones) nature is about to put on an incredible show of species survival and expansion. The Alates have two pairs of wings and amazingly have functional compound eyes as compared to every other termite in the colony who is completely blind. When the time is right the alates emerge from the nest through slits opened connected to ‘Swarm Tunnels’ that have been especially constructed by the workers. The slits can be found in trees, in buildings or structures, even right from the ground. With the nest on full alert and in defence mode from predators such as ants the swarm begins. As soon as the swarm is completed, the workers close the slits – and are usually undetectable.
Termites take flight
Like a scene from World War 2 with thousands of bombers taking off from airfields ready to take the war to Japan and Germany, the ‘winged ones’ take flight, for a spectacularly short period of time. Most flights only last a few minutes and are influenced by wind and which way the breeze is blowing. Some species have been known to produce up to 70,000 alates, the equivalent of all Fighters and Bombers produced by Britain during World War 2, a spectacular event to say the least. You will know on a warm summers evening when your patio or deck is inundated with these flying ants, dropping their wings, getting into your bbq and swarming the outside lights.
King and queen termites swarming. The immense numbers that swarm are required as most are eaten by predators such as birds, spiders, marched off by ants once they land, lizards, frogs and toads. Imagine 70,000 bombers taking off and only two surviving. That is the mortality rate of a swarm. If not predators, the Alates may be killed by the environment, heat, cold or even just falling in a creek or pool and drowning.
A NEW COLONY IS BORN
Here we find some survivors, once the Alates have landed, they shed their wings. The process of shedding is quite violent as they are literally snapped off near the base. The female immediately secretes a pheromone from her abdomen in order to attract a male. The courtship of the male and female potential Kings and Queens has been described in detail by Snyder in 1935.
The surviving dealates pair off in couples, the male closely and tirelessly following the female, with head close to her abdomen and his feelers or antennae in constant touch with her.