What are Termites? Types, Characteristics and Importance

Termites have lived alongside humans for centuries, but do you know everything about them? This article will explore all the different types of termites, the characteristics of termites, the history of termites and why they’re essential in our environment.

Introduction to Termites

A termite is a small, insect that lives underground in colonies. They are often feared because they are known to cause extensive damage to buildings and homes. Though they may be feared, termites are actually quite remarkable creatures. They’re six-legged and have three sections to their bodies: a head, a thorax, and an abdomen

History of Termites

The name “termite” is derived from the Latin word termes, meaning “woodworm”. A termite is a eusocial insect that has existed for over 120 million years. They are thought to have evolved from cockroaches, first appearing in the fossil record during the Early Cretaceous period. It is believed that they began to diverge from their cockroach ancestors around this time.

During this time the main lineages of termites: were the Termitidae, Mastotermitidae, Kalotermitidae, and Rhinotermitidae. 

The Termitidae lineage is the most diverse, with over 2,000 species worldwide. The Mastotermitidae lineage includes the oldest known termite species, which dates back to the Jurassic period. The Mastotermitidae were the first lineage of termites, and they were discovered in Europe and North America.

The Kalotermitidae lineage includes drywood termites which have more than 400 species of termite. Drywood termites are major pests in many parts of the world. The Rhinotermitidae lineage includes Formosan subterranean termites, amongst which 23 species are major pests.

They are often called white ants, although they are not actually ants. In the past, they were considered separate from cockroaches, but recent studies indicate that they emerged from close relatives of cockroaches. Despite evolving from the cockroach family, they are highly social insects.

Termites are also known for their cannibalizing behaviour. If any colony member is dead & if it is decomposing or pose a risk to the colony, they won’t hesitate to eat it. This ensures that the territory can remain healthy and safe.

Understanding Different Types of Termites

Subterranean Termites

  • There are many types of termites in the world, but subterranean ones are among the most common. 
  • In order to reach their food source, wood, they build mud tubes.
  • They have a straight, segmented body with a creamy colour ranging from dark brown to black.
  • Subterranean termites are found on every continent except Antarctica and are capable of causing significant damage to properties.


  • Termite colonies underground typically contain 60,000 to 1 million insects.
  • As a means of travel between their nests and food sources, they create mud tunnels. If you have subterranean termites, you might see swarms of winged insects around your home or small dirt tubes on walls or foundations.

Drywood Termites

  • The drywood termites have six legs and a pale brown body about ¼ inches long.
  • As the name suggests their primary habitat is dry wood. Drywood termites live in colonies consisting of multiple castes.
  • Besides gathering food and caring for the other castes, the workers make up the core of the colony.
  • Warm, dry climates are often home to drywood termites. Drywood termites live in colonies which consist of up to 2,500 individuals.


  • They live in wood with a low moisture content, and they don’t build mud tubes.
  • Moisture in the soil is not essential for drywood termites to survive.
  • A crack in the foundation or a gap around a door or window is the most common way drywood termites enter a house.
  • Their diet consists solely of wood, which provides all the water they require.

Dampwood Termites

  • They are attracted to wood with a high moisture content, which is why they’re often found in damp or humid environments.
  • Dampwood termites usually build their nests in wood that is high in moisture content – such as logs or stumps that have been lying in water for extended periods.


  • There are many water sources near which dampwood termites can be found, such as streams, rivers, lakes, and swimming pools.
  • Soldiers and swarmers have a tough exoskeleton and can vary in body colour from light brown to light red.

Formosan Termite

  • Formosan termites are a species of termite native to Formosan, an island in Taiwan.
  • They have also been introduced to other parts of the world, including the United States.
  • They are pale yellow in colour and have thin bodies.
  • One of the most distinguishing features of Formosan termites is their size.
  • They are much smaller than other types of termites.
  • They will eat just about anything that contains cellulose, including wood, paper, and even insulation.


  • They can quickly do a lot of damage to a structure.
  • Formosan termites are considered to be one of the most destructive pests in the world.
  • Formosan termites live in colonies that can contain up to several million members.
  • These colonies typically include a king, a queen, and many workers.
  • The members of the colony work together to find food and build their nests.
  • These nests are made up of a combination of wood and soil.
  • The most common method for nest building is by using their saliva to build mud tubes.
  • These mud tubes are used to connect different parts of the nest or to reach food sources that are located above ground level.


How Big is a Termite?

Usually, termite size ranges from about ¼ of an inch to ½ of an inch long. The largest termite species is the queen, which can grow up to 4 inches long. The size of a termite depends on its type. For example, drywood termites are ¼ of an inch to 1 inch long.

Damp wood termites are slightly smaller, ½ to ¾ inch long, but the swarmers can be up to 1 inch long. Subterranean termites are ¼ to ½ inch long in length.

How Long Do Termites Live?

They are interesting creatures that have captivated people for years. One of the most common questions about these insects is, “How long do termites live?”. The answer to this question is not as simple. The life cycle of a termite begins with an egg. The egg hatches into a larva, which then moults into a nymph.

Nymphs go through several moults before becoming adults. Male and female termites then pair up and form their own colony.

Their life expectancy can vary in every species. Termites generally live for about two years, though some species can live for up to 20 years. Queens and kings can live for 10-20 years or more, while workers only live for a few months to a couple of years. Additionally, conditions such as temperature and food availability can impact the lifespan of individual termites.

The Importance of Termites

While Termites can cause problems for humans when they invade our homes, we should also consider the important role they have in our environment.

Termites help break down dead wood and other organic matter, recycling nutrients into the soil. This is especially important in forest ecosystems, where termites play a crucial role in decomposition and nutrient cycling.

They also help get air into the soil, making it better for other organism’s survival. By digging tunnels, they make channels that let air and water reach deeper into the ground, which helps drainage and air circulation.

A wide range of animals also depends on termites for food. They are the source of food for many birds, reptiles, and mammals.

Termites play an essential role in medical research as well. They have been used to study various human diseases, such as influenza and asthma. In some cases, they have even been used to help develop new treatments for these diseases.

Did you know

Characteristics of Termites

Termites are small, winged insects that are often mistaken for ants. They are proficient at tunnelling and damaging wood structures, making them a nuisance to homeowners. They are classified as Isoptera order, with more than 2600 species of termites. While there are different types of termites, they all share some common characteristics.

Social Creatures

They are highly social insects forming huge colonies that can number in millions. They have different castes with different responsibilities for the colonies. These colonies are divided into three primary castes: workers, soldiers, and reproductives (including king and queen).

The workers make up most of the colony and are responsible for foraging for food and caring for the young. The soldiers protect the colony from predators and attacks by other insects. The reproductives are responsible for mating and reproducing new generations of termites.

Damage Wood

They feed on cellulose, which is found in wood. They have a voracious appetite for wood and other cellulose-based materials. This diet makes them unique among insects, as most other insects do not have the ability to digest cellulose. 

In order to digest cellulose, they rely on symbiotic bacteria that live in their gut. Due to their diet, they are often considered pests, as they can cause extensive damage to homes and other structures made mostly of wood.


In order to reach their food source, they will tunnel through wood and soil. Tunnelling often damages the foundations and other structural components of a home. These tunnels also help them in staying moist, which is vital for their survival. 

Tunnels also help them regulate their body temperature and protect them from predators. The tunnel system also allows them to travel long distances quickly and efficiently.


The swarmers or (winged termites) are the reproductive caste of the colony. Their sole purpose is to find a suitable mate and produce new colonies. Swarmers are typically dark in colour and have two pairs of wings that are equal in size. 


Termites are interesting insects because they have a long history of survival and many different traits. Understanding the different types of termites can help us to identify their species, protect against structural damage, and control them effectively. Termites are essential for our environment, but they can also pose a severe threat to structures if not managed correctly.

Taking steps such as regularly inspecting woodwork both inside and outside your home will help you remain vigilant against destructive colonies of termites. With careful maintenance and proper precautions, we can safely admire them for their beneficial role instead of worrying about their potential danger.


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