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Around three thousand termite species have been documented worldwide, the majority of which inhabit tropical forested regions where they are not known to be pests. A small minority of termite species inhabit urban and suburban areas in temperate regions where they are known pests of structural wood and other sources of valued woodwork. Historically, termites were the only insects in the order Isoptera, but recent phylogenetic studies have revealed that termites actually descended from wood-eating cockroaches hundreds of millions of years ago. Because of this discovery, termites were moved to the cockroach order Blattodea, though some researchers still refer to termites as belonging to the “infraorder” Isoptera in the Blattodea order. In the US, several drywood, dampwood, and subterranean termite species are pests that inflict between five and seven billion dollars in property damages annually. The vast majority of termite-related structural damage is inflicted by subterranean termite pests, most notably the eastern subterranean termite (Reticulitermes flavipes). This species is the only termite pest found in Massachusetts where their colonies are known to be prevalent in urban and suburban landscapes.

Eastern subterranean termite colonies are established by reproductive swarmers known as “alates.” Alates are the only termites that homeowners may visually spot during swarming season, which occurs during the spring and early summer months in Massachusetts. Alates are the only colony inhabitants that emerge in the open air, as workers, soldiers, offspring, and the royal pair will rapidly dry up and die outside of their moist soil habitat where humidity remains near 100 percent at all times. Mature subterranean termite colonies are composed of multiple interconnected nesting sites that span areas as large or larger than ⅓ of an acre. The royal pair and their offspring remain within the original “parent nest” at all times, while workers constantly forage away from the nest in search of food sources.

Subterranean termite food sources consist mostly of natural wood debris, and wood-made products like paper and scraps of lumber. While soldiers accompany workers during foraging expeditions in order to provide them with protection from predators, only workers infest wood. Eastern subterranean termites generally do not infest living trees, but they feed on dead portions of trees, stumps, and wood scraps on properties. While subterranean termites in the US feed only on cellulose in wood and other forms of plant waste, they are also known for damaging other materials in an effort to access structural wood in homes and buildings. These materials include sheetrock, plastics, carpeting, stucco, and insulation.

Have you ever found signs of subterranean termite damage on a garage, barn, shed or other non-residential structure on your property?