Thousands, sometimes millions, of termites make up a colony, yet they cohesively work together and are productive. They are very social insects, but most in the caste are blind. Without visual signals, termite communication is achieved predominantly through chemical and mechanical cues.
Here’s a simplified look at their very diverse and unique “language”:
Pheromones are chemical signals or scents that enable the termites to communicate. Some pheromones require termite-to-termite contact, while other pheromones can travel through the air. Each termite colony has a distinct odor, depending on factors such as diet and the amount/type of gut microbes. They use these pheromones to elicit different behaviors:
- Alarm & Danger – If an animal, insect or other natural termite enemy attempts to invade the colony, those nearest the danger will create a vibration, accompanied by the release of an alarm pheromone, both of which serve to warn other termites of the threat. Termite soldiers then rush toward the intruders to protect the colony.
- Food Marking & Sharing – Worker termites forage randomly and continuously for wood food sources. Once workers locate a food supply, they secrete a pheromone scent from their sternal glands to mark the location. They continue to leave this scent along their path as they return to the colony. This forms a termite trail which then leads their nest mates to the food source and back to the colony.
Both reproductive and soldier castes secrete a pheromone that is transmitted through food sharing (trophallaxis) and grooming to other members of the colony and inhibits development of reproductives or soldiers. Trophallaxis can be done by regurgitating food from the stomach then transmitting it mouth-to-mouth or through dispersing fluids from anus to mouth. This food sharing also delivers chemical messages generated by the queen to all members of the colony.
- Control & Balance – Because each termite caste has its own distinctive pheromone scent, the queen can detect if there is a loss of pheromone given off by a specific group. If the caste balance of the colony is unequal, some undifferentiated nymphs do not receive the “pheromone message” and thus develop into reproductives or soldiers, thereby restoring the balance.
The noises termites make are faint and rarely heard. You would need a stethoscope to hear termites at work. However, there are a couple of sounds that termites actually make that you might be able to hear – one is a dry rattle noise that is made when termites are threatened or disturbed. It is caused by banging their heads against the walls of their tunnels (you feel like that sometimes, don’t you?); the other is a paper-rustling sound caused by drywood termites when they tunnel near the surface of the wood.
The last associated sound is made by humans when checking for termites. It’s the noise you make when tapping a wall seeking a hollow tone. This could be a signal that you have termites, but more evidence would be needed to confirm an infestation.
If you think termites are damaging your home – even if you’re not hearing them – these “silent destroyers” can be wreaking havoc. Getting a professional termite inspection sounds like the best idea.