Termites are unusual creatures. We assume they’re a kind of ant, but they seem vulnerable and naked since they’re mostly white. Don’t let their paleness fool you though – termites in Florida (and many other parts of the world) do thousands of dollars in property damage every year. Learn about these insects, why they’re so destructive, and how to manage them.
Termites in Florida – How to Identify a Termite
You’ve probably noticed two seemingly distinct termite types. First, the pale, hazy, almost transparent ones that live in crumbly mud tunnels called termite runs. They’re usually grey, cream, beige, or milky-white and seem quite fragile. Don’t be lulled by their appearance – they’re the most destructive ones! They have six legs, antennae, and three body segments.
The second type are the darker brown termites with wings that come out in swarms when it rains. They quickly shed their wings after they land and are delicate in a different way. You’ll soon see tons of them dotting surfaces as they eventually drop off and die. These bugs are the reproductive members of the termite clan, and not many survive their exploratory excursion.
Nude tunnel termites and dark winged termites are part of the same insect family. And these insects are further divided into subterranean, drywood, and dampwood termites, depending on what they eat. All three species are common termites in Florida. Subterranean termites prefer mud tubes while drywood termites permanently live in huge caverns of hollow timber.
Most termites are completely blind. They communicate through pheromones and vibration. They’re constantly in dark tunnels so their scents and movements are easy to transmit and understand. But swarming termites have limited eyesight because they need to see where they’re going. Their short annual flight is the secret key to perpetuating the termite population.
The Three Termite Castes in Florida
You may have heard of worker ants and soldier ants. Termites have a similar structural system. Their three social classes are driven by a hive mind that uses pheromones to guide their actions and life patterns. Interestingly, unlike bees and other insects, every termite caste has members of both genders. Let’s explore the roles and characteristics of these bugs.
- Workers: Small sterile males and females who hunt for food sources, digest cellulose, and bring it back to feed the rest of the colony.
- Soldiers: Large sterile males and females who protect the colony from predators. The soldiers have huge jaws adapted to fight ants so they can’t eat on their own. Worker termites have to feed them by pushing food straight into their mouths like babies.
- Alates: Also known as swarmers, these winged termites have functional reproductive organs. They leave the nest in spring to mate, lay eggs, and start new communities.
Every termite colony has a pair of monarchs – one king and one queen. They mate, lay eggs, and look after their babies. These babies grow into light-skinned workers and soldiers or dark-skinned alates aka swarmers. From February to April, flying termites in Florida leave the nest in thousands. The ones that survive their trip settle in pairs, forming new colonies.
Meet the Monarchs of the Termite World
Since the king and queen are alates, their skin is a darker brown or even black. The king is the same size as a worker termite, and the queen starts small but can grow to 10cm! Soldiers are larger than workers, with big, bulbous heads that are slightly darker than their bodies. Threatened workers use pheromones to summon soldiers whenever they need assistance.
Apart from fighting off predators, soldiers are the rescuers of the colony. If the nest, termite run, or wooden chamber gets cracked or split, the soldiers use their heads – literally – to quickly plug the gap to prevent further damage. Workers then build around the head to repair the fissure. Soldiers can also bang their heads along the mud tube to signal danger.
Termites live in nests called termitaria or termitariums. (The singular form is termitary or termitarium.) The king and queen never leave the nest, but workers go outside to find food and bring it back while the soldiers provide security. Termites have unusually light skin. They rarely come out in the open where they’re susceptible to predators and strong sunshine.
Subterranean termites resolve this by building crumbly mud tunnels from place to place and exclusively traveling in these red runs. Drywood termites move around inside logs and wood frames, never exposing themselves to the elements. Other termites operate under dried twigs and leaves so you’ll see them scatter in a panic if you kick the stick or turn over the old leaf.
The Lifecycle of a Termite
The lifecycle of termites in Florida begins after dense rain. Thousands of alate pairs fly out of the nest, guarded by strategically positioned soldier termites. These alates spread out, lose their wings, and fall to the ground. If a wingless female and male can safely find each other, they build a fresh termitary and start a new family of bugs, extending the termite generation.
The young couple uses a mix of dirt, saliva, and food (digested cellulose) glued with frass (termite poop) to craft their home. These termitaria can get huge over the years, towering as high as 6 meters. That’s close to 20 feet! Inside these mud castles, the couple lays eggs and raises their firstborn batch into adulthood, dividing them into workers, soldiers, and alates.
Every three seconds, the queen lays one egg. The eggs are stacked in batches of 10 to 20 eggs totaling up to 30,000 eggs a day! It’s the king’s job to look after these first babies, feeding and grooming his kids until the first crew of workers is old enough to babysit and take over childcare. Eggs take around two weeks to hatch then two more months before they’re grown.
Since termites are translucent, you can see their most recent meals. Workers feed digested cellulose to their little ones through the workers’ rear ends aka anal trophallaxis but use their mouths to pass food to soldiers, royals, and other termites who can’t feed themselves.
Duties and Roles in Termite Colonies
Interestingly, it’s the king and queen that decide termite castes. After the eggs hatch, the monarchs make pheromones to designate the baby’s social class. So if the colony needs more soldiers, workers, or alates, the royals release the appropriate hormones to change the baby’s biology and adjust its career path. The worker termites will remain small, pale, and sterile.
Soldiers get bigger and darken their heads, while alates darken their bodies, improve their eyesight, grow wings, and develop gonads. Essentially, every termite could be a royal, and if the king or queen die, their pheromones stop, so some workers can develop spontaneous fertility. One might become a secondary queen and take over if the termite king is still alive.
But most times, the colony collapses and these workers-turned-alates are now ‘replacement reproductives’ that swarm the next time it rains. The queen is far less fortunate. As we said before, termites don’t have a colored chitin coat, so they’re vulnerable both to predators and pathogens. To keep the nest pristine, they routinely groom each other to destroy any germs.
And since the queen lays eggs every day and gets so big that she can barely move, she sweats a lot. This fluid is quite nutritious though, and young termites lick it, both for sustenance and to keep her comfortable. The day she dies, those babies and worker nannies clean up quick! They will likely eat her body to avoid contaminating the nest, and the colony will fade away.
Why Termites Love Florida
A worker or soldier termite can live for a year or two while the queen can live for three to five decades! She can lay thousands of eggs every day but is most fertile during her first ten years. The UK is lucky enough to have zero termites because their gloomy weather doesn’t support the preferred termite lifestyle. These bugs need warm humid year-round conditions to thrive.
The tropical climate and mild winters spell paradise for termites in Florida. In colder parts of the country, termites dig deeper into the soil when it snows. Their nests can sometimes go 20 or 30 feet below the surface. That way, they stay warm and the workers can continue to ferry fresh food to the rest of the colony. But in Florida, temperatures rarely dip below 40°F (5°C).
Termites prefer to get their cellulose from wood, but they can also seek it in fabric, animal wastes, carpets, cardboard, grass, and insulation materials. The protozoa and bacteria in termite tummies break this down into sugar. Some termite species opt for wood that’s been partially digested by fungi. This is fine in the wild but is a problem when they come indoors.
As we mentioned, termites live in colonies that comprise thousands of individual insects. A colony that has 60,000 members can chew through two feet of wood per year. That’s roughly 12 inches of 2 x 4 wood every 5 or 6 months. And since timber forms the framework of many structures, termite attacks can make floors and walls collapse, peel paint, and stain surfaces.
How to Get Rid of Termites
Interestingly, the termite swarm doesn’t jointly attack one spot. They spread throughout the building targeting different pieces of wood. This means they hollow out larger swathes of lumber. Your entire house could disintegrate! Repairing this damage could cost $2,000 to $5,000 and it’s rarely covered by insurance, so you need to solve your termite problem early.
Termites are attracted to decaying cellulose, so keep mulch, cardboard, or firewood far from your walls. If you have a sprinkler, point it away from the house so it doesn’t wet the lumber and make it rot. Seal or pressure-treat any timber furniture or accessories in your yard, and check regularly for leaks in your pipes, plumbing, gutters, sinks, and any wooden structures.
You can sometimes hear termites crawling through your walls if the infestation is large enough. If you see any mud tubes around your property, look for kicker holes or crumbling wood. Try rapping the walls and floors to check for hollow sounds. Use a stick to break these mud tunnels and expose the termites. This disrupts their food supply and kills a few of them.
Follow the termite runs to see if you can spot the terrarium. Break it manually and pour boiling water down the spout. This won’t do much since those nests can go quite deep, but you’ll feel a lot better. To do the job properly though, call an exterminator with a proven three-step process of inspection, treatment, and prevention that covers several months.
Do you know any other trivia about termites in Florida? Tell us about it in the comments!