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In order for termite colonies to survive and function normally there needs to be a proper number of workers, soldiers and reproductive termites (alates) operating within a colony. All termite species operate according to the same type of caste system. Many people may assume that a termite’s role within a colony is determined by the time they begin their development within the queen’s eggs. However, this is not the case. Actually termite eggs have not yet been designated as soldiers, workers or reproductives. It is during the larval stage that a termite’s place in a caste system is determined. This process is known as “caste differentiation” and it is a particularly complicated process.

The process of termite caste differentiation occurs in two different routes. The first route is known as winged (imaginal), and the second route is known as wingless (apterous). The first developmental stage has larvae becoming either workers or nymphs. If a termite larva becomes a worker, then it can follow a few different trajectories. One trajectory has the workers remaining as workers after undergoing several molts. Another trajectory has workers morphing into pre-soldiers. In this case, the pre-soldiers become full soldiers after one molt. Another trajectory has the worker molting into an apterous eyeless third-form reproductive.

If a termite larva becomes a nymph it can regress into a worker-like organism, or it can develop into a fully winged reproductive with functioning eyes. In this case the nymph becomes a primary reproductive, but they can also develop into wingless and eyeless secondary reproductives. As you can now understand, the process of caste differentiation is far from simple. There are many internal and external factors that contribute to the development of termite larvae. Some of these factors are unknown to scientists and many are well documented. Internal factors include nutritional status, age, hormonal levels, genetic composition or sex of the individual termite. External factors include the composition of the colony at the time of larval development, and the environmental conditions present.

 

Do you think that future termite control methods may aim to alter termite development?

 

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