Termites are amazing insects that have evolved over time to occupy a rather unique niche in almost all environments on earth. Termites have made two unique adaptations that plainly set them apart from the majority of other insects, one being the ability to digest wood (cellulose) for nutrition and their complex colony structure. Let’s take a look at these amazing and adaptable insects.
The foremost adaptation that sets termites apart from most insects and in fact, most organisms on earth, is the ability to digest wood and wood particles called cellulose, for nutrition. There are several thousand species of Termite around the world, from the tree nesting termites of Central America to the mound building termites of Australia and Africa and they all consume some form of cellulose for nutrition. In effort to keep the discussion specific and not over-broad, we will discuss the Termites native to New Jersey, the Eastern Subterranean Termite.
The Eastern Subterranean Termite is native to the northeast region of the US and are densely populated through New Jersey. Their main adaptation has been to attack and consume underground wood and root systems from dead plants. The wood alone is not enough to sustain them however. In order to fully digest cellulose, termites utilize a type of microbe in their gut, called a protozoa. These simple, single celled protozoa are passed from one termite to another after they hatch by exchanging food with one another (called trophallaxis) or by mutual grooming. It’s important to note that termites are not “born” with these protozoa, but have to acquire them from their nest mates.
Once Termite workers have begun to feed on a source of wood, they will consume as much as they can hold and return to the nest. Upon reaching the nest, the returning workers will share the cellulose with other termites there, including the King, Queen and other reproductives, as well as any soldiers or nymphs that might be present. It is interesting to note that although the overwhelming majority of a termite’s diet is made up of wood, they are not exclusively wood feeders. Termites have been known to feed on types of fungus growing within their nests as well as scavenging decaying animal carcasses, although infrequently. Termites are notorious for consuming the dead bodies of their fallen nest mates, a process known as necrophagy. While humans might consider this a type of cannibalism, it is quite common in nature and especially in other colonies of insects like ants. It would seem the highly efficient nature of colony insects require that nothing go to waste.
Colony insects are among the hardiest of insects on the planet and cover most of the available surface of the earth in one way or another. Honeybees, wasps, all species of ants and termites are all examples of social insects but termites are unique in that they are not related to any other kind of social insects. Bees, ants and wasps are all closely related being from the Insect order known as the Hymenoptera, a large and highly evolved group of insects. Conversely, Termites are in the sub-order Isoptera, a sub grouping of the Order Blattodea and are closer relatives of roaches, a group of insects not known for social insect behavior. The Termite’s development into a complex social structure truly sets them apart from their roach-like cousins.
The Termite Colony has several distinct groups within and are highly adaptable based on environmental conditions around the colony. Most important are the King and Queen, the primary reproductive termites that begin colony development. Once the King and Queen mate, they will burrow underground and begin construction of the larval chamber. Once the queen has laid her first brood of eggs, the first insects to hatch will develop into worker termites.
Termite colonies are mainly composed of worker termites, the backbone of the colony. As the name implies, the worker termites are responsible for the construction and maintenance of the nest, foraging for food, grooming and feeding other types of termites. In smaller colonies that may number only a few dozen or hundred termites, only workers will be found. As colonies grow in size, other types of termites will be produced. Once the colony numbers several hundred, soldier termites will begin to develop.
Soldiers are much like workers with one notable exception, the heads and jaws of the soldiers are significantly enlarged and hardened for defense of the colony. Soldier termites will respond to any invasion of the colony by other insects, like ants, or to any damage to the nest. Soldier termites are known to “sound an alarm” to attract other soldiers to a point of attack or damage in the nest structure. Unlike most other communication that occurs in the colony that occurs through chemicals called pheromones, the soldier termites attract other soldiers by banging their heads on the ground, using vibrations to carry the alarm message.
As colony size increases into the thousands and beyond, supplementary reproductives will eventually develop. These supplementary reproductives assist in reproduction within the colony as well as attempt to start a new colony. Female supplementary reproductives have been known to assist the Queen in egg laying and quite often will lay more eggs than the queen. If the queen were ever to die from illness or old age, a female supplementary reproductive would become the new Queen and will begin sending out control chemicals to the colony.
When reproductive are generated by the colony en masse, they will develop wings and are known as “alates” or “swarmers”. These winged termites will have an annual reproductive flight in the early spring, releasing hundreds of swarmers at a time. Since termite colonies base their swarm on environmental factors, all the colonies within a geographical region will swarm around the same time, if not the same day. Once a male and female swarmer meet during this flight, they will mate and begin the whole cycle anew.
For more information on termites found in our area of New Jersey, click here.
For a more in depth look about termite colonies, click here for some good science.
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