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Subterranean Termites at a Glance

Subterranean termites cause more than $2 billion in damage in the U.S. each year, making them more than just a nuisance to homeowners.  These termites are social creatures, living in large colonies numbering in the thousands to millions, making them a significant force despite their individual weakness.

Colonies are structured like a caste system with queens at the helm, followed by kings, soldiers, worker termites and the reproductive caste.  The castes work together to form an intricate maze of tunnels and pathways through the ground and eventually within the wood structure on which they feed.  Wood damaged by subterranean termites has a pock-marked appearance because they feed along the grain, which hallows out the wood as they go.

Due to their sheer number, worker termites are usually the first seen when subterranean termite colonies are detected.  These wingless, white insects are blind and have soft bodies, but are capable of building and maintaining the vast tunnel network, caring for young termites and providing food to the rest of the colony.

Both worker and soldier termites transition into adult termites through a process called molting.  These winged adults eventually swarm, mate and become queens and kings of new colonies.  In some cases, the immature termites grow into wingless neotenic reproductives whose only job is to contribute to egg laying and, thus, the growth of the colony.

Subterranean Termite Environment and Food Sources

Subterranean termites feed on anything containing cellulose. They prefer dead wood or wood by-products, however, they may damage other non-wood substances as they tunnel in search of food. And the softer the wood, the better. Hardwoods are less at risk of termite attacks, but aren’t completely off limits.

In order to effectively forage for food, termites must operate in temperate, moist climates. High moisture levels are critical to termite survival, and prolonged contact with open air will cause the termites’ bodies to dry out.

This is why these termites build their colonies in the soil.  They can extend their colonies’ reach in non-soil areas by building mud tubes, which they saturate with moisture from the soil to keep their bodies wet during travel.  Suffice it to say, keeping the areas around your home dry will help prevent termites from establishing colonies in the first place.

Temperature is the final part of the survival quotient for subterranean termites. If temperatures are either too hot or too cold, termites will not forage for food near the soil’s surface.  They may tunnel deeper into the soil, or find areas where topsoil is shaded during hot weather. This preference for warm, moist environments is why adult termites swarm in the spring, as the weather warms and rain showers coat the ground.

Despite the careful balance of conditions subterranean termites must maintain for survival, they nevertheless pose a constant threat to homeowners. Only a trained termite specialist can detect infestations and eliminate them for good.


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