A Scientific Look at the Termite

Termites are nasty, wood-eating insects that you never want to find in your home or yard. If you live in California where termites are unfortunately common, you probably know the basics about these pests ― what they look like, what damage they cause, and how to detect them. However, if you’re a scientifically minded person, you’ll probably find this more in-depth, scientific look at termites interesting.

How Did Termites Evolve?

Termites are old – in two ways, actually. Their queens are the longest-living insects in the world, sometimes living up to 50 years .

Termites are also old in an evolutionary sense. Some researchers believe that they evolved from a species of wood-eating cockroaches nearly 250 million years ago, during the Permian  period. Some dispute this claim and believe older fossil evidence suggests termites originated much later – during the Jurassic or Triassic period.

Since appearing on earth, termites have been a very successful group of insects. Although most species prefer tropical environments, you can find termites on every continent except for Antarctica. They’ve developed complex, social colony structures that allow them to work together for the advancement of their kind.

How Are Termites Related to Each Other and Other Insects?

All termites are animals that belong to the class Insecta, order Blattodea, and infraorder Isoptera. The order Blattodea also contains cockroaches, meaning that cockroaches and termites are closely related.

Within the infraorder Isoptera, seven families of termites exist:

Mastotermitidae: These primitive termites are in Australia and New Guinea and are very similar to cockroaches.

Termopsidae: Measuring up to 25 mm in length, these large termites dine on damp wood. The Pacific dampwood termite belongs to this family.

Hodotermitidae: These termites actually harvest grass, not wood, and dwell in India, the Middle East, and Africa.

Kalotermitidae: Drywood termites belong to this family; more than 400 species are found worldwide.

Rhinotermitidae: This family contains the subterranean termites, which build their nests in soil and are quite common (and destructive) across the U.S.

Serritermitidae: This is another family of subterranean termites; they are only in South America.

Termitidae: These beneficial termites do not destroy human-built structures and are quite important to desert ecosystems.

Keep in mind that each of these families contains multiple – sometimes hundreds – of different species. Approximately 3,100 known species of termites exist, in total.

How Do Termites Digest Wood?

The idea that termites can sustain themselves dining only on wood is pretty remarkable. What’s even more amazing is that the termites don’t actually digest the wood. Rather, tiny protozoan organisms living in the termites’ guts do all the work.

Cellulose, the main component of wood, has sugar molecules connected in a chain-like manner. Protozoans break the bonds between the individual sugars in the cellulose chain, and the termites are then able to absorb and utilize the sugars.

Without these protozoans living in their guts, termites would be unable to survive. The adult termites excrete the protozoans in their feces, and the termite larvae ingest those feces, thereby introducing the protozoans to their own digestive tract. Each time termites molt, they must ingest more feces from another termite in order to introduce more protozoans to their system.

The relationship between termites and these protozoans is best described as mutualism. Each species needs the other for survival.

The next time you come across a termite, you’ll probably be dismayed at the threat the insect places on your building. But hopefully, you also feel a small sense of awe for this innovative insect and the way it has managed to survive on the earth for so long.

Contact the experts at Craig & Sons Termite & Pest Control, Inc., if you have any lingering questions about termites or think you may have some on your property.