The subterranean termite is the most common and most widely distributed termite in North America. It is a problem for home owners from southern Ontario in Canada, south throughout the Eastern United States and as far west as Montana.
Termites feed on wood and serve an important function in nature by converting dead trees into organic matter. Unfortunately, termites don’t know the difference between dead trees and the wood in your home.
This native American pest feeds on such cellulose materials as structural wood, wood fixtures, paper, books, and cotton. Occasionally, it will even attack the roots of shrubs and trees.
- Subterranean termites can enter buildings through cracks less than 1/16″ wide.
- Colony growth is slow, and it may take years before swarmers are produced.
- A mature colony of subterranean termites can range from a low of 20,000 to a high of 5 million workers, with an average of 300,000.
- The colony’s queen will add 5,000 to 10,000 eggs per year to the total.
- An average subterranean termite colony can consume 5 grams of wood per day, the equivalent of 2 1/3 linear feet of a 2’x4′ pine board annually.
- The termite colony is made up of different types (castes) of termites – each with separate work responsibilities.
- Although subterranean termite colonies are largely located in the ground below the frost line, secondary colonies can exist above ground, and examples of true above ground colonies existing without any ground contact have been seen. However, such above ground colonies have access to moisture and often the source is a roof or plumbing leak.
- Subterranean termites will often build mud tubes for travel between their colonies and their food sources.
- The king and queen in a colony can live for 10 to 30 years, while workers live for about two years.
Subterranean termites are ground-inhabiting, social insects that live in colonies. A colony or nest of subterranean termites may be up to 18-20 feet below the soil surface to protect it from harsh weather conditions. Termites travel through mud tubes to reach food sources above the soil surface.
The mature termite colony has three castes:
The colony reaches its maximum size in approximately 4 to 5 years and may include 60,000 to 200,000 workers. New colonies are formed when winged males and females from a parent colony emerge in flight or swarm.
The winged reproductives (commonly called swarmers) are dark brown to brownish black and have two pairs of equal size wings that extend well beyond the body.
Swarms are common in spring and fall, especially after a rain. After a flight, the winged males and females return to the ground and shed their wings. The wingless males and females pair up and search for sources of wood and moisture in soil. The royal couple digs a chamber in the soil near wood, enters the chamber and seals the opening. After mating, the queen starts laying eggs.
The queen may live up to 25 years and lay more than 60,000 eggs in her lifetime. The eggs are yellowish white and hatch after an incubation of 50 to 60 days.
Full-grown workers are soft-bodied, wingless, blind and creamy white. In early stages, they are fed predigested food by the king and queen. Once workers are able to digest wood, they provide food for the entire colony.
The workers perform all the labor in the colony such as obtaining food, feeding other caste members and immatures, excavating wood, and constructing tunnels. Workers mature within a year and live from 3 to 5 years.
Soldiers are creamy white, soft-bodied, wingless and blind. The head of the soldier is enormously elongated, brownish, hard and equipped with two jaws. Soldiers must be fed by workers because they cannot feed themselves. They are less numerous in the colony than workers and their only function is to defend the colony against invaders. Soldiers mature within a year and live up to 5 years.
Subterranean termites feed exclusively on wood and wood products containing cellulose. Termites have protozoa (microorganisms) in their intestines that provide enzymes to digest cellulose. Although termites are soft-bodied insects, their hard, saw-toothed jaws work like shears and are able to bite off extremely small fragments of wood, a piece at a time.
Termites often infest buildings and damage lumber, wood panels, flooring, sheet rock, wallpaper, plastics, paper products and fabric made of plant fibers. The most serious damage is the loss of structural strength. Other costly losses include attacks on flooring, carpeting, artwork, books, clothing, furniture and valuable papers. Subterranean termites do not attack live trees.
An average subterranean termite colony can consume 5 grams of wood per day, the equivalent of 2 1/3 linear feet of a 2’x4′ pine board annually.
Signs of Infestation
Wood damaged by termites always has remains of mud tubes attached to wood galleries or tunnels in an irregular pattern. The tunnels may contain broken mud particles with fecal materials. In the case of an active colony, white termites may be found in infested wood.
The presence of flying winged males, females or their shed wings inside the building indicates an infestation.
The presence of mud or shelter tubes extending from the ground to woodwork or on foundation walls also may indicate infestation. Workers travel periodically via shelter tubes to their nest to regain moisture and perform feeding duties. Each mud tube is approximately the diameter of a lead pencil.
How Old Is The Damage?
Based on normal feeding activity, it takes 3 to 8 years to cause appreciable damage. There have been some predictions that, under ideal conditions, a termite colony of 60,000 workers may consume a one-foot length of 2″ x 4″ pine in 118 to 157 days.
The presence of termite damage does not necessarily mean you have an active termite infestation. Look for signs of a previous treatment, such as drill holes in the concrete, or even a treatment sticker placed on the cabinet wall under your kitchen sink by a previous owner.