Termites belong to the order Isopters. The order Isopters has several characteristics. When wings are present, there are four wings with both pairs similar in size and shape. When termites are at rest, the wings are usually laid on the back and extend far beyond the tip of the abdomen. The wings are capable of being broken off by means of a suture at the base of the wing. This order also has chewing mouth parts that are wide where they join the thorax, sometimes ending in a pair of very short cerci at the tip. Termites are sometimes called white ants and can often be seen in large numbers in logs in the forest or in wood lying in contact with the ground or in the timbers of buildings.

Within the order Isopters are the families Rhino termitidae (Subterranean termites) Subterranean termites are very destructive either to wooden structures that are in contact with the ground or that can be reached in a means of shelter tubes built by termites. Building timbers are often so badly infested with subterranean termites that while the exterior may appear to be sound, the interior may be a mass of tunnels and excrement. Termites in general frequently will not be seen until spring when swarms of winged reproductive appear. (Information on swarming habits is provided in later sections of this publication.) The reproductive often are mistaken for flying ants.

The Biology and Colony Formation of Termites

Termites are relatively primitive insects from a biological standpoint, but their social organization is the most complex of all the insects.

Wood is made up chiefly of cellulose, a large complex chain of relatively simple chemical molecules. Few animals have the necessary ody chemicals (digestive juices) to break down cellulose into smaller more usable nutrients. Termite plus their helpful protozoa can do this. Cattle eat grass (which is primarily cellulose) and are helped by similar micro organisms to break down the cellulose into similar compounds, primarily various sugars. Humans do not have the right kind of microorganisms in their digestive tract to break down cellulose and therefore cannot digest cellulose, although we do eat many plant products which contain cellulose, such as lettuce and celery which, in the form of cellulose is called “bulk” or roughage in our diets. Digestive tracts of some termites contain protozoa which produce enzymes that break down the cellulose into products that termites can digest. If these protozoa are removed the termites will eventually die of starvation. Certain species that have no intestinal protozoa to aid in digestion feed on mold cultivated in their nests.

The biology of the principal termite groups in the United States, the families Rhinotermitidae (subterranean termites) is similar. Both of these families usually depend on protozoa in their mid gut to break down cellulose for food. Termites do not possess there protozoa when they are born but must obtain them by feeding from other individuals in the colony. They feed upon an anal secretion of an older termite. Every time a termite melts, the lining of the intestine is shed along with the entire body skelton and the protozoa are lost. In order for the termite to get more protozoa it must feed again from other individuals.

Termites in the colony are divided biologically into three basic groups: reproductive forms both winged and wingless: numerous sterile soldiers that are always wingless and workers, wingless also. The reproductive that are winged known as alates are the primary swarms. They are the potential kings and queens. They also are the members of the colony that are most likely to be seen by the homeowner. The homeowner most often confuses these winged termites with winged ants, but differences between them can be observed. In the termite, the abdomen is broadly joined to the thorox whereas in the ant the thorox and abdomen are joined by a narrow waist. The termite also has straight bed like antennae whereas those of the ant are elbowed. In addition the winged termites are heavily pigmented unlike the caste from which they swarmed. The wings of the termite are approximately equal in length and usually extend from 25 to 33% of their length beyond the end of the abdomen when folded. In the winged ant, the hind wings are much shorter than the front pair of wings and the folded wings rarely extend beyond the end of the abdomen.

After flight, termite primary reproductive break their wings off near the base. Males and females pair off, mate, and begin excavation for a new nest. Termites in the family Rhinotermitidae (subterranean termites) may excavate their nests in wood found after digging into the ground, between a piece of wood and damp ground, or in a crevice in wood on damp ground. They construct galleries that eventually extend deep into the ground. The egg laying capacity of the queen increases as she grows older. Queens of some mound building tropical termites can lay as many as 1,000 eggs per day for as long as 25 years. Several years may pass before all castes are present in a new colony. The workers feed on wood or fungi and by regurgitation and excretion provide food for the young and the other castes. The soldiers are usually large headed individuals with massive jaws, who guard the nest entrance and the royal pair.


Pheromones are chemicals that are secreted in the outside of the bodies of insects for case regulation, attraction, communication, or trail marking. These chemicals are also known as hormones. Chemicals such as pheromones are used by social insects as a primary means of maintaining their social structure. Specialized glands produce and secrete pheromones for contact by other termites in the colony.

Termites must be ale to recognize other members of the colony. Their habit of grooming each other cleanses them and also results in their consuming pheromones from glandular cells in the body covering of other members of the colony. Termites using this process recognize other members of the same colony.

Pheromones also inhibit the formation of additional members of the same sex in the colony or caste from which the hormones are obtained. Pheromones thus serve as a regulatory mechanism to prevent too many individuals of males, females or soldiers in a colony. It is believed that a queen can inhibit sexual development of other potential reproductive even if her own abdomen is covered with varnish, thus covering all of her glands. Individuals can also stimulate the development of a caste. For example when a group of nymphs are separated from soldiers some of the nymphs will develop into soldiers. The number of soldiers produced is much greater however when reproductive are resent. Of course the role of pheromones in the structure and formation of termite colonies is extremely varied and complex. Other substances in the colony that work as pheromones are the trail marking substances. These odor trails are for varied purposes. The scent flairs can be laid down to a particular food source and can mark it as being suitable for consumption. These scent trails are rather species specific, although there is a possibility of practical utilization of these trail substances in wood baits.

Termite and Their Environment


In those parts of the world where the winter is mild, such as Florida, temperature conditions permit termites to remain active throughout the year. In colder parts of the world, heated buildings also permit house infesting termites to remain active throughout the year. However, colonies situated in nature become inactive in cold weather.

Subterranean termites are capable to a limited extent of regulating temperature conditions of their environment, to suit themselves and the colony. Their burrowing often are situated so that some run above and some run below the ground,therefore providing burrows situated some distance below ground in more equitable temperature conditions where termites will be found during extremes of cold or hot weather.

Non subterranean termites cannot regulate the temperature of the colony since it is located entirely above ground. For this reason non subterranean termites are more of a problem in the southern United States.


The amount of moisture required for different species of termites is extremely variable.

Subterranean termites need a constant ample supply of moisture. Part of this moisture is obtained from the products of their own metabolism and part from soil moisture which diffuses through their tunnels or tubes.

The subterranean termite colony usually obtains its moisture from the soil and is greatly dependent on soil types. Moisture in clay soils is tightly bound to the particles and not readily available to the termite, whereas sandy soils allow the moisture to be available to termites. Thus termites are more prevalent and able to survive better in sandy soils.

Subterranean termites can also obtain moisture by consuming fungi present in the wood. Fungi also aid in the regulation of humidity in the passages of the colony. The plugs of partially chewed wood, feces, or other matter placed by the termites in the passages also assist in the regulation of moisture content.

Among the non subterranean termites dry wood termites are able to colonize dry, seasoned wood. Wood absorbs some moisture from the air and thus provides enough moisture for dry wood termites. Another group, the dampwood termites are extremely tolerant of moisture and have been found in water logged wood, staves of water tanks and harbor structures near or over the sea.


Termites can detect vibrations by means of their legs. They are unable to hear a noise near the nest but are immediately aroused when the nest is tapped. When alarmed, soldier termites rattle their hard heads against the walls thereby initiating the vibrations which warn the entire colony. Humans can detect these vibrating sounds by tapping an infested pole or timber and listening to the termite infested wood. It is also believed that termites, like ants, can communicate with one another by means of tactile movements of their antennae.


Termites prefer to live in darkness and this is of fundamental importance to them. Termites have poor eyes some have no eyes and most of them lack wings except in the adult or reproductive phase. Since they live in darkness and narrow passages where temperature moisture and oxygen pressure are to some extent under their control, they are well adapted to that environment.


There are three principal types of termites in Malaysia(1) subterranean termites, which nest in the soil (2) damp wood termites which infest damp wood and (3) dry wood termites which infest dry wood and do not require contact with the soil. This manual deals mainly with subterranean termites which are social insects that live in colonies consisting of many individuals. The colonies are composed of kings, queens, soldiers and workers. King and queen termites perform the reproductive functions of the colony. They are dark brown to black in color and have two pairs of wings about twice the length of their body. Soldiers, which defend the colony against invaders are wingless and white in color with large brown heads and mandibles (jaws). The workers, which are approximately 1/8 inch long have no wings are white to cream colored and comprise the bulk of the colony.

Subterranean termites occur throughout Malaysia and are the most common type of termite encountered. They nest in the soil from which they obtain moisture. Their food is cellulose obtained primarily from wood but they may also feed on paper, fiberboard and some fabrics derived from cotton and other plant fibers. The protozoa in their digestive tracts convert the cellulose into usable food. They may attach any wood in contact with the ground. If the wood does not contact the soil directly they may build mud tunnels tubes to reach wood several feet above the ground.

Dry wood and furnite (powder post termites) do not require contact with the soil and obtain their moisture from the wood. Dry wood termite gaileries in contrast to subterranean termites galleries, cut across the grain of the wood and destroy both soft spring wood and the harder summer growth. Damp wood or rotten wood termites may obtain their moisture from the foil or from wood that remains moist above the soil level. They are often found in the sapwood and heartwood of living trees. These have been found mainly along the coastal areas.

Subterranean termites remain hidden within the wood or other materials on which they feed. Those actually doing the feeding are seldom seen. However there are several ways in which the presence of these insects may be detected.

At certain times of the year, usually in the spring and during the daylight hours, winged adults emerge from the colonies in great numbers and fly about for a time. In most cases, there is when termites are first noticed. During the swarm males and females choose pairs and find a suitable place to start a colony. Adult termites can be distinguished from flying ants by the fact that termites are thick waisted while ants have a “wasp-waist”. The appearance of winged termites in the house is an indication of probable infestation although individuals sometimes come in from outside. Termite wings breaks off shortly after their flight and even if the actual swarming is not observed, the presence of discarded wings indicates that an infestation is nearby. Since termites are attracted to light their broken off wings are often on the floor near doors or windows where they have been attracted to the light and unable to escape. Peak swarming periods for termites (including dry and damp wood) occur from February through May in Florida. They may also swarm to a lesser extent during the other months.

The appearance of winged termites emerging from the ground out of doors near the house does not necessarily mean the house is infested but it is a good reason to check further. Termites in homes or other buildings usually come from colonies already established in the soil. Perhaps the termites in a colony beneath the house or in the soil nearby have been feeding on scrap lumber, roots or tree stumps left in the ground when the house was built.

Other signs of infestation are the presence of flattened earthen shelter tubes they build over the surface of foundations to reach wood. These tubes are usually ¼ to 1 inch wide. Subterranean termites perish rapidly under dry conditions and build these mud tubes to maintain correct humidity throughout the colony. Houses should be inspected at least once a year for evidence of tubes (preferably during the summer months). If the house has a crawl space, the inside of foundations should be inspected for tubes. For slab on ground construction, cracks in concrete floors and places where pipes and ducts go through the slab should be closely examined. Subterranean termites can enter the home inmany ways. Any wood in contact with the soil such as wood supports through concrete slabs or siding touching the soil are excellent ways of entry. Cracks in concrete foundations and open voids in concrete block foundations are also hidden avenues of entry. The most common entry points for subterranean termites are around plumbing pipes, tub-traps and expansion joints in the slab.

Damaged wood is often not noticed and the exterior surface usually must be removed to see the damage. However galleries can be detected by tapping the wood every few inches with the handle of the screwdriver. Damaged wood sounds hollow and the screwdriver may even break through into the galleries. Subterranean termites feeding follows the grain of the wood and only the soft spring wood is attached. They construct galleries in the wood which contain sand and soil particles which are used as a form of plaster. They do not push wood particles or pellets fecal material to the outside as do dry wood termites or other wood boring insects; but rather use it in the construction of their tunnels.

The most important and most prevalent subterranean termites in Malaysia subterranean termites. It also occurs in Klang Vally and the East coast of Malaysia-Sabah and Sarawak. The eastern subterranean termites consumes anything containing cellulose. It attacks and destroys wood in buildings and materials such as books, furniture, shoes, etc stored there. It has been known to also infest telephone poles, fence posts, houses and occasionally living trees, shrubbery, flowers or crops.

Swarming of subterranean termites usually occurs in April through June but flights can occur in October and November. Severl swarms may occur from the same colony. Usually the first swarm is the largest. Males and females usually come out in equal numbers. The young and mature second form adults are found in large numbers each year.

Two other species of native subterranean termites also occur in Malaysia. They are much smaller southern species and are normally in coastal regions Both species are similar in habits. However R.hageni swarms late in the season, August, October, November through January, whereas R.Virginicus swarms usually occur in May or June.

R.virginicus and R.flavipes have blackish colored winged reproductive. R.hageni has brown colored winged reproductive and is often mistaken for the dry wood termite.

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