A Guide To The Behavior Of Termites

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What can we learn from this story?

This is obviously a work of fiction. Termites don't have names. They're not good or evil. They are simple organisms that operate on a set of innate instructions. These instructions tell them when to excrete pheromones, when to tap their heads against tunnel walls as a warning, how to build tunnels, how far to build them, and more. The queen does not issue orders from her throne. She does not speak with sounds or instruct her subjects to do her bidding. The queen uses pheromones to direct the development of her colony based on a set pattern she is aware of instinctively. If the colony needs more soldiers, she uses pheromones to inspire workers to become soldiers. When the colony reaches a certain number of individuals, she uses pheromones to inspire workers to become male and female reproductive alates. It is what she is wired to do. She doesn't hold parties in her court or convene with her generals. The termite queen is a basic organism following a set of simple instructions.

The story you are about to read is true to scientific fact. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

The queen, the soldier and the worker

three termites all eating a new jersey home

Jane was destined to be a queen. But on the day of her birth she was a humble worker and, not just a worker, a larval worker, unable to digest her food without the help of the older workers in her colony. Over the course of several months, Jane worked, not knowing what she would become. When adult workers came back, she shared in the food they brought back with them. And as she shed her skin, she was unaware of what the queen of the colony had planned for her.

Eric and Tom hatched when she did. She didn't know them by name, nor did she have a relationship with them other than the cooperative connection she felt toward them as part of her colony. They shared a pheromone scent she could identify with, and it made her comfortable to be around them. But they were not royalty.

As time passed, Eric developed into a nymph and started to behave differently from the other workers. His head started to grow larger and turn a dark orange color. He had been chosen by the queen to protect the colony. Mighty pincers grew from his face. He would use those pincers to stop invaders from other termite colonies, and unwanted insects, such as ants, from getting into the tunnels of the colony. With his big head, he would plug tunnel walls when holes would form. His destiny was to protect the colony from all of the dangers the world would throw at them. And he and Jane grew apart, though neither perceived the passing of their closeness.

Molt after molt, Tom continued to be a worker. The queen had no need for him to be anything but that. Tom was good at his job. He would tunnel with the other workers for nearly 200 yards in search of food.

One day, Tom dug up through the soil and found some tasty food that he immediately started to share with the other workers in his colony. He had no idea that the wood was owned by humans. All he knew was that it was exactly what the queen had sent him to find, and it was delicious.

The group of workers quickly set to work nibbling away at the source of food and brought it back to share with the other termites in the colony. As new workers came to take the place of Tom and those that had found the food source, Tom continued to search for more sources. Over the course of several months, they found many locations to feed on, and the queen was very happy. He did not know, however, that all of the sources belonged to the same group of humans or that their activity would be discovered. Nor did he know that Jane would be the one to betray them all.

Jane stayed close to home. It was where she felt most comfortable. Her queen let he know without a word that it was where she was supposed to be.

She grew to be a nymph, and eventually a reproductive for her colony, and she wasn't the only one. There were many male and female workers that were developing into reproductives. Each of them became a beautiful black color and grew long white wings. But it seems like forever that they did nothing but crawl around in a tight unit, anticipating what would come next.

When the order to go forth came from the queen, it did not come with horns or instructions, she just new--as did the others--that it was time to leave. Together, as one, they pushed upward through the designated tunnel and emerged into the open air above the ground they had called home for months. They were finally free!

The group of winged reproductives took to the air and fluttered through the night sky as one. They fluttered around a bright source of light they did not know was a streetlight. They fluttered around a beautiful bright light they did not know was the exterior light of the home they had been feeding on. All they knew was, it was time to mate and find a suitable place to establish a nest.

Jane found Gary in the midst of the ever-moving mass of alates that had gathered on an object called a windowsill. It wasn't that Gary was more muscular than the other alates. It wasn't that he had a good job or a great sense of humor that made him the right termite to be her king. He was just the one who responded to her pheromone scent. And, had they mated, he would have never left her side. He would have been the king of her colony and helper for her offspring all the days of her life, which might have been as long as 30 years. But that was not their destiny. She would not be the queen of a new nest. On the day she was to be queen, she was sucked into a dark place, and that was where she died. She did not know it was called a vacuum cleaner bag or that it was a human female who sucked her up. And she was not aware that her death was only the beginning of a great war that would mean the end of the colony and her queen.

Life went on for Tom. He was not aware of Jane's fate. And, even if he had been present at the time of her death, he would not have recognized her death as anything other than a threat to the colony. She wasn't known as Jane to him. She was just one of many individuals he squeezed by each day. Her death would have meant nothing to him. He would have simply responded to it as any other worker. He would have released a scent to warn the others that the colony was in danger. And that would have only happened inside their tunnels. Once Jane took to the air, her fate was no longer a concern. The colony had done its part in sending her out. Whether she was able to establish a new nest in another location was of no consequence to the collective. Regardless, Tom was oblivious and continued about his happy chore of finding food, blind to her passing.

The drums of war had sounded, but Tom was unaware. In some distant an incomprehensible world the humans were discovering the tunnels he and the other termite workers had made. They were ripping out board after board and looking in horror at what he had done. His only perception of this was the faint warning smell of pheromone in some of the tunnels he found himself passing through on his way to get more food. But the scent wasn't enough to cause the colony to withdrawn. He continued his diligent mission.

When the humans called a pest control company, Tom was working on a mud tube inside a basement wall. On the day the pest control company sent a technician to do a detailed inspection, Tom was nibbling on a section of the garage. When treatments began, and a curtain of Termidor termiticide was injected into the ground around the entire home, Tom was near the nest. No warning came through the tunnels. No defensive posture was taken. Tom and his queen had no idea that the humans had set in motion a series of events that would result in the termination of the queen. He simply continued on his way to where the food was.

When Tom passed through the curtain of termiticide, he did not sense it. It got onto his body and he carried some of it with him, but it didn't bother him. He fed on one of the food sources that had been found and began to make his way back toward the colony, sharing the food with other workers as he went and, each time, sharing the termiticide with them as well.

Over time, Tom ceased in his sharing of the product. In fact, he ceased his work altogether. The other workers groomed him, examined him, and then took him back to the nest, and he was consumed by the collective. There was no ceremony. There were no tearful goodbyes. He was simply no more. And the colony continued on without him. But it did not continue long. The product had made its way all the way to the queen.

On the day of the queen's death, the workers continued to tend to her and clean her, waiting for eggs to emerge. Soon it was clear, there would be no more eggs. The workers began to grow still, not by choice, not for the sadness of her passing, there was simply no reason to go on. Her orders no longer emanated from her like the ripples in a pond. There were no more instructions for the colony to follow. She would never again produce a pheromone scent for them to obey. There would be no more offspring. And, without offspring, there was no reason to collect food. It was over as if a switch had been flicked. The colony had come to the end of its journey. The termites did not know why they had stopped, but stop they did.

A review of termite behavior

termites eating through a new jersey homes wall

All termites have their own set of behaviors that were not taught to them. These determine how they acquire food, how they defend the collective, and even how they deal with their dead. The treatment of dead is actually quite fascinating--if slightly horrific. When termite workers happen upon a dead termite, some species of termite will groom the dead termite and then carry it away to be consumed by the colony. The species of termites that consume their dead also have other rules. They won't consume a termite that has been dead for more than 3 days. Researchers believe that a termite that is recently dead is a great source of nitrogen for the colony, while one that has been dead longer could be infected with a harmful pathogen or a fungus that is detrimental to the health of the collective. Therefore, they choose to bury termites that have been dead too long. It is not a ceremony. It is simply an act of colony preservation. Everything termites do is for the preservation of their nest. And they are not aware of the colony as a whole. They simply respond to the termites that are near them.

When protecting our property from termite damage, it is important to know how these insects think and, more specifically, the patterns they follow. Here are some examples:

  • We understand that worker termites never stop looking for food, even when a food source is found. This helps us to understand how they can damage a man-made structure from several points, rather than one. It also informs us that the only way to protect a home or business is to create a barrier all the way around the property. Anything less is not sufficient.
  • We know that termite swarms do not last long and do not travel far. When swarmers emerge from their nest, they will quickly mate and establish themselves. So, the appearance of swarms inside or outside a home is not usually the indication of an impending infestation but more likely evidence of a mature infestation on the property. This information aids in making a proper assessment of termite pressures.
  • We understand that termite workers have an aversion to light and that they produce mud tubes to maintain darkness and protect them as they create a path to the wood of a home. We also know that they are prone to making these mud tubed in dark, secluded areas around or underneath a home. This helps pest control technicians locate evidence of termite infestations, evaluate the threat, and establish an effective treatment plan.
  • Termite swarmers are attracted to light. Because we are aware of this we can inform our customers to keep exterior lights off and keep curtains drawn at night to reduce the risk of having termites establish themselves close to the home.
  • We know that swarmers are drawn to moist ground and moist wood. This is information we share with our customers and, by correcting conditions that lead to moisture problems, our customers are better protected.
  • We know that termites are simple organisms that do not require sleep. This allows them to feed 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. That makes them a serious threat when they start to feed on a home.
  • We understand that termites share food with each other through a process called trophallaxis. When they come near to each other they may also groom one another. This close contact behavior is what allows the spread of Termidor termiticide from one termite to the next.
  • We have observed that termites respond to the death of worker termites. If termite workers die too quickly, the queen will send forth a pheromone that will inspire the colony to go into a defensive posture. Understanding this has led to the development of slow-acting products like Termidor, that are able to work their way all the way to the queen without triggering the alarms.
  • We know that when the queen of a termite nests dies, the colony dies with her.

Protect your most important investment from termites

Termites cost U.S. property owners over $5 billion each year. If we are to protect our property from these simple, wood-destroying organisms, we need to understand what it is we're fighting. Over the last few decades, pest control companies have trusted Termidor termiticide to win this war. It is the #1 termite defense product in the United States.

For more information about Termidor, or to schedule a free home estimate with one of our termite control specialists, reach out to Arrow Pest Control. We serve Morganville, Northern New Jersey, and NYC with industry-leading termite protection. Get your protection in place today.

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If you’re looking for a program that protects your home and family from common household pests PLUS termites and other wood-destroying insects, we recommend Arrow Premier. With this program, you get quarterly pest control and a wood-destroying insect program in one package! 

  • Protects your home all year long.
  • Consists of full interior and exterior inspections and treatments.
  • Covers your entire property* including the attic, mailbox, play set, shed, and fence.
  • Includes a certified termite inspection and ongoing termite control.

Pests targeted with Arrow’s Premier includes cockroaches, silverfish, spiders, earwigs, clover mites, millipedes, centipedes, crickets, ground beetles, boxelder bugs, ants (including carpenter ants, pharaoh ants and acrobatic), fleas (inside only), pillbugs, sow bugs, fruit flies, stored product pests, bees, wasps, hornets, carpenter bees (no higher than 10ft), mice, and rodents PLUS termites

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