Termites are small yet fascinating insects which are found virtually everywhere in the world except for Antarctica. They are detrivores and typically eat large amounts of wood and dead plant material. Termites are also some of the most successful insects in the world and live in highly organized societies where each member has a specific and important role to play. But there’s plenty more to learn about them, including discovering how they defend their nest, how many eggs they lay, and how long they live. So join us as we discover 10 incredible termite facts!
1. There are More than 2,500 Species of Termites
As termites are found virtually everywhere in the world it’s not surprising that there are a lot of species of them. Currently, there are more than 2,500 living species of termite in the world, spread across five family groups. However, it’s quite likely that there are a few more that have yet to be discovered. Additionally, there are approximately 600 extinct species which make up a further 7 family groups. One of the most common (and destructive) species of termite is the eastern subterranean termite which is widespread across the United States.
2. Colonies can Consist of Several Million Individuals
Termites live in large colonies which are highly organised and structured units. Each colony consists of a king and queen, workers, and soldiers. The role of the king and queen is to reproduce while the workers forage and gather food and the soldiers defend the nest. The number of termites in a colony varies. The smallest contains only a few hundred while the largest can consist of several million termites in a single nest!
3. Queen Termites have the Longest Lifespan of any Insect
Most insects have relatively short lifespans – often ranging between a few days to a few months at best. In general, termites have a fairly long lifespan for an insect with most living for one to two years. However, queen termites far surpass this and actually have the longest lifespan of any insect in the world. Incredibly, termite queens can live for around 50 years, although some scientists estimate that up to 100 is possible under optimum conditions.
4. Some Termites are Invasive
As many species of termites eat and live in wood they can end up causing serious structural damage to buildings. Depending on their diet, some termites even damage many crops. Therefore, quite a few species of termites are classed as being an invasive species in many countries around the world. There are around 28 invasive species of termites and most of them originate in Asia. There are actually invasive termites on every continent in the world except for Antarctica.
5. Most Worker and Solider Termites have No Eyes or Wings
Worker and soldier termites are vitally important to the survival of the colony as workers forage while soldiers defend the nest. Therefore, it might come as a surprise that most worker and solider termites have no eyes or wings! The lack of wings is the easier of the two to understand as they simply use their legs to get around. However, you’d think that the lack of eyes would probably be a problem for them – but it’s not. Instead, they manage to communicate exceptionally well by using a combination of chemical, pheromonal, and mechanical cues. These can be through things such as smells, hormones, and vibrations. Incredibly, they are able to detect and communicate the location of food and predators.
6. Termites Mate for Life
Mating for life is not entirely uncommon in the animal world. Probably the first animals that come to mind when we think of it are birds, particularly graceful swans and stunning bald eagles. Despite this, we likely never imagine termites as being an animal that mates for life, and yet they do just that. However, they’re not particularly picky about choosing a partner as they proceed to mate within only a few hours of meeting! First of all, the male and female find a suitable log for their nest and then make a hole big enough for them both to go in and mate. Surprisingly, they actually then never leave the nest for the rest of their lives, which is pretty impressive when we think back to how old they can get!
7. Termite Queens Lay a Lot of Eggs
Considering how large some termite colonies are, it stands to reason that termites are pretty good at reproducing. One of the most important aspects of their reproduction is the queen as her sole job is to lay eggs. At the beginning of their reproductive life, when the colony is still in its early stages, queen termites only lay around 10 to 20 eggs per day. However, as the colony gets older and larger her egg-laying capacity increases too. Once they reach full maturity they are able to produce vast amounts of eggs every single day. Fully mature termite queens are able to lay one egg every 3 seconds and on average they can produce an incredible 30,000 eggs per day!
8. There are Two Groups Based on their Diet
Termites are actually divided into two groups based on their diet – higher termites and lower termites. Although wood is typically thought of as being the primary diet of termites, this is not always the case. Lower termites are the ones that feed mainly on wood and their guts are specially adapted to cope with their wood-based diet. These are a more primative type of termite which are more closely related to their ancient relatives. However, higher termites actually have a more varied diet and feed on grass, roots, leaves, and humus. They are much better adapted and have undergone more evolutionary changes. Higher termites have a more diverse range of gut bacteria than lower termites. They also tend to create more elaborate nest structures.
9. Termite Mounds can be Pretty Huge
Termite nests are always a flurry of activity with all of the busy workers and soldiers which are always working away foraging for food and defending the nest. Not to mention that when there are millions of individuals in the colony the nest needs to be pretty big. Although many termite nests are subterranean, they are classed as a mound when they are above the surface of the ground. They are usually made from a combination of soil, dung, and termite saliva and the walls are covered with tiny holes which allow for air flow.
Mounds can take several years to build and some can be incredibly elaborate structures. Some mounds have chimneys and others even resemble cathedrals! However, the most impressive thing, especially considering the relatively small size of termites, is the size of the mounds. Although termite mounds are at risk of being eroded by rainwater in wet locations, they can still reach dizzying heights. Depending on the species, some mounds reach around 30 feet high and almost as wide. The record size for a termite mound is a mound in the Republic of Congo which is a breathtaking 42 feet high.
10. Termites Blow themselves Up to Defend the Nest
Soldier termites are tasked with defending the nest from enemies such as ants. Even though they are blind they still manage to do an incredible job – and they certainly take it seriously! Termites use an alarm system to communicate that there are predators around. This can be done by either releasing an “alarm pheromone” or by banging their heads against the walls of the nest to create vibrations. But that’s not all, as methods of defense include deliberately blocking tunnels to prevent access, defecating, biting, and even blowing themselves up. The latter is easily the most extreme method, yet it is done for a reason. The termites that sacrifice themselves for the survival of the colony are usually older ones. Their abdomens contain a mixture of chemicals which are deadly to nest-invaders. These older termites rupture their abdomen and literally explode in the face of their enemy.
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