What are termites?

Termites are incredible, small insects that have mastered cooperation allowing them to achieve great things, such as building skyscrapers, hollowing huge trees, moving vast amounts of soil and of course, eating your house.

Termites are not ants. Most people are comfortable that they know what an ant is, but hardly anyone seems sure they know what makes a termite a termite. Again, because it is worth repeating, termites are not ants and they are certainly not white ants. That's a really sloppy term, please don't use it. Termites are close relatives of the cockroaches, and so are very different to ants.

Just like the huge variations you seen in the ants, the termites are similarly diverse with lots of different life styles. The different types of do very different things and from the perspective of controlling termites, it is important to find out what type of termite you have as this affects what you should do.

A termite, actaully a de-alate
An Ant
Color most termites are typically whitish, often almost see-through. You can usually see the food in their gut, but the winged ones are usually much darker (as above) many possible colours, usually black or dark red or brown
Shape six-legged grub, fairly short legs six-legged grub with narrow waist, legs longer.
Wings if present, four, roughly twice as long as body, all the same size and shape.  They are deciduous., being discarded after flight. if present, four, about the same length as body, rear wings obviously smaller than the front pair.  The wings are retained after flight.  Winged ants are typically about the same colour as the rest of the colony.
Head no eyes unless winged form (eyes are also very rarely in soldiers). usually obvious eyes
Antennae like a string of pearls definitely elbowed, with longer segments
Body soft harder, tougher


termites in a tunnel.  These are Coptotermes lacteus in their mound.

Termites belong to the Order Blattodea:
(Pronounced Blat-oh-dee-a) , which they share with the cockroaches and sit in the infrafamily Termitoidae (Pronounced Tur-mit-oy-day).  The termites (before nucleic acids took over taxonomy)  had their own order, the Isoptera.  That name came formthe Greek, Iso meaning equal and pteron, meaning wing. The name referred to the wings of the reproductive caste, which isn't very helpful as most termites are plain workers that never get to grow wings. There are two pairs of wings, with the front pair the same size as the hind pair. The name termite comes from the Latin word termes meaning woodworm (which probably covered some beetle larvae as well).
an alate
Drawing of a Reticulitermes flavipes alateTermites are small, pale to whitish, soft-bodied social insects living in a nest or colony system. They all feed mostly on plant fibre (cellulose). The colony is divided into castes, which do different jobs and mostly also look different.  The most numerous worker caste is relatively undifferentiated and performs much of the colony work, there is a specialised soldier caste with head and jaw structures differentiated with stronger features and often mouthparts more suited to defence than feeding. The reproductive caste, known as alates (winged ones) are produced when nymphs mature to develop wings and a generally darker colouring. Metamorphosis is gradual (there is no pupal stage)

The head is rounded and eyes generally absent except in the reproductive caste (and rarely in soldiers), antennae are beaded ('moniliform') with more than ten obvious beads, wings are also absent except in reproductive caste. They all have strong chewing mouthparts and can broadly be separated by looking at the patterns of their tiny teeth (not like ours, more like saw teeth). The wings are deciduous, shed shortly after Post-flight female of Coptotermes lacteus signalling for a mate.  Note wings already discarded.nuptial flight through breakage at a suture near point of attachment (hence de-alate), leaving small scales which persist. Termites are weak fliers, flights occur only under favourable conditions: nearly still air, high humidity and with falling barometric pressure indicating a likelihood of following rain. No constriction of the abdomen (as in ants, bees and wasps). Here's a similar description at the University of Delaware

a worker termiteTermites also behave in ways that makes them easy to identify. For a start, nearly every type live completely in the dark (except when building or when the winged ones are flying), so you usually only see them when something is broken or open. Once exposed, they will try to follow their scent trails home. If these are broken they just wander around looking lost or squeeze into any gap they can find.


Drawing of a Coptotermes soldier termiteMost species of termites have what is called a soldier caste. These grow strong heads, often much darker than those of the other termites. Very often, these strong heads also have big jaws. If you can find some of these among you termites, it makes the job of identifying the species much easier. Soldiers may be rare, only a few percent of the population, so look carefully.