Termite Social Structure
Termites are social insects. This means that they live in colonies. Scientists think that the termite social structure is a big reason they have thrived in almost every part of the world.
A colony of termites contains three forms of termites. The forms are called castes. Members of each caste look very different from the other castes. Each caste has a different role or job in the colony. The three castes are workers, soldiers, and reproductives.
Workers are the most common termites. In most colonies, workers are sterile adults. A few types of termites do not have a worker caste. In these colonies, immature termites do the work.
Workers are the termites that eat the wood. They are the termites that appear when someone breaks open a piece of infested wood.
If they are eating food that is above ground, subterranean termite workers build mud tubes to cover their trail. The tubes keep the environment humid. The tubes also keep the termites safe from predatory ants.
Workers have to feed themselves in order to do their jobs. They also have to feed the immature termites and the soldiers. Sometimes the workers also feed the reproductives.
Workers care for the eggs and the immature termites. They also build and repair the nest. In some colonies, workers also help the solders defend the colony.
Soldiers have very large heads and enormous jaws. The jaws, called mandibles, are on the front of the head. The mandibles enable the soldiers to fight ants. However, the size of the mandibles makes it impossible for the soldiers to feed themselves.
When ants attack a termite colony, the soldiers often push their heads into the opening to prevent the ants from entering. The soldiers also rap on the walls of the tunnels with their heads to signal danger.
In a colony of termites, the soldiers are only a small part of the population. The actual ratio can vary according to the type of termite. The conditions in the colony can also affect the number of soldiers.
Reproductives are the termites that produce eggs. The primary reproductives are the original pair of termites that started the colony. They shed their wings and made a small nest where they began producing eggs.
It usually takes four or five years for a termite colony to develop. By that time, many colonies are so large that the original queen cannot produce enough eggs to replace the termites that die.
Mature colonies often have secondary reproductives. These are supplemental queens. They develop within the colony and produce eggs.
In many colonies, the secondary reproductives travel about with the workers. If groups of termites become isolated from the colony, they can often start new colonies. The secondary reproductives simply begin to produce eggs in the new location.
An immature termite can develop into any of the three castes. As it develops, the immature termite can even develop backward if the needs of the colony change. A termite that was developing into a soldier can regress and then develop into a worker instead.
Scientists have learned that the queen regulates the ratio of the castes in the colony. By emitting a pheromone, she prevents other queens from developing. As long as the queen is healthy, the immature termites will develop into workers and soldiers to replace the ones that die.
Scientists hope to learn how the castes develop. They will continue to study how a termite becomes a worker or a soldier. They believe that this will help control termites more effectively and protect homes against termite damage.