Termites live and function in a colony filled with hundreds, thousands or even millions of its brothers and sisters. Within this large extended family are various groups with different functional roles, called a caste. It allows them to work together for the purpose of being more integrated, efficient and productive. Other insects with such a developed social system include ants, bees and wasps.
Much like a family, each termite has a specific function or job they must do to ensure the colony’s survival. It could be to repair holes in tubes, build mounds, gather food or propagate the colony. The simplified model of a termite life cycle indicates three castes: the reproductives, the soldiers and the workers.
Reproductive termites are vital for keeping the termite colony viable and successful. If there are no reproductives in the colony, it will eventually collapse. As you would expect, the role of the reproductives is to lay eggs. Most colonies have one pair of primary reproductives – the king and queen. In some species, secondary and tertiary reproductives assist with the egg-laying. Only the king and queen have eyes and wings. The rest of the termites are blind and navigate using scent and moisture trails. Kings and queens are usually a darker color than the rest of the termites in the colony.
Soldiers defend the nest from invaders, typically ants and termites from other colonies. In most species, soldiers have large heads and strong, pincer-like mandibles. Soldiers’ heads are often darker than their bodies. Some species can secrete a toxic or sticky substance from their heads, which they use to kill or subdue intruders. Soldiers can’t feed themselves, they have to be fed by workers. Usually the number of soldiers is much smaller than the number of workers. They are sterile, wingless and blind and live typically one to two years.
Workers are a milky or creamy color. They have smaller, saw-toothed mandibles, which allow them to take small bites of wood and carry building materials. As their name suggests, they do most of the work in the colony. They dig tunnels, gather food and care for young. They also feed the king, queen and soldiers. Workers, similar to soldiers, are sterile, wingless and blind with a one- to two-year life span.
Like humans, not all termite families are the same and there are many different types of families thriving in the U.S. Termites have shown they are far more socially advanced than we might think.
Have you observed termites or related damage? Maybe it’s time for a professional to inspect your home.