Termites

There are over 350 species of termites in Australia, with around 20 species causing damage to the timber found in houses and other types of buildings. Sometimes called white ants because of their small size and ant-like appearance, termites are actually more closely related to cockroaches and the praying mantis.

Life Cycle

The life cycle of the termite is a relatively simple one, with only three developmental stages;

Egg,

Nymph and

Adult.

The eggs hatch into nymphs and are fed by the workers. As the nymphs grow, they moult several times, changing into worker, soldier or reproductive forms.

Appearance

Termite appearance varies depending on species and role within the colony. They are generally 10mm in length, light brown to white in appearance, no eyes, short antennae which appear beaded, blunt abdomen and no waist.

Soldiers may appear in 2 different body forms – with a jaw (mandibulate) or long-nosed (nasute).

During the Reproductive cycle, termites have a winged stage similar to ants. However, unlike ants, termite wings are equal in size and have no obvious veins.

Social structure and behaviour

As social insects, termites live in colonies that number from several hundred to several million individuals. They are a prime example of decentralised, self-organised systems using swarm intelligence and use this cooperation to exploit food sources and environments. A typical colony contains workers, soldiers, and reproductive individuals of both sexes, often containing several egg-laying queens.

Diet

All termites eat cellulose in its various forms as plant fibre. However, only a small number view human made timber structures as a food source.

Habitat

Termite nests are generally found in trees, soil mounds or underground. Nests in trees may be seen on the outside of a tree or may be hidden inside the tree and stumps. Nests in the soil may be seen as the easily recognised mounds seen in bushland or hidden beneath the surface. Nests may also be found in human structures such as fence posts and telegraph poles.

Because of their wood-eating habits, termites sometimes do great damage to buildings and other wooden structures. Their habit of remaining concealed often results in their presence being undetected until the timbers are severely damaged and exhibit surface changes. Once termites have entered a building they do not limit themselves just to wood, also damaging paper, cloth and carpets.

Termites try to remain hidden, building tunnels in earth and wood. When they have to cross some impermeable material they build long shelter tubes (from packed earth and faeces).

Ecology

Ecologically, termites are important in nutrient recycling, habitat creation, soil formation and quality and as food for countless predators. Globally termites are found roughly between 50 degrees North & South, with the greatest biomass in the tropics and the greatest diversity in tropical forests and Mediterranean shrublands.

References

CSIRO - Monitoring termites and wood borers in the home

Australian Museum - Termites

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