Coptotermes – The top subterranean termite pests

The Coptotermes genus have perhaps the most infamous termite species in the world. While there are many species in this genus, most of the differences between species are small, and can only be detected after careful examination with a microscope. Nonetheless, the Coptotermes termites can generally be distinguished from other termite species due to their appearance: Whitish colored workers, and soldiers with ovoid, orange heads, sharp mandibles, and pale body.

The Formosan Subterranean Termite (Coptotermes formosanus), is the most notorious termite species in North America and East Asia, while in large parts of tropical and subtropical Asia, we have the Asian Subterranean Termite (Coptotermes gestroi). While Formosan termites were first described from Taiwan, hence their name, Coptotermes as a whole are actually a very adaptable termite genus, and many species have since spread to other countries via shipping cargo.

In total, 48 Coptotermes species are known, and 23 are oriental. Not all species are destructive, though and these do not enter buildings, but the ones that do, do it better than any other termite species. Several species are able to develop huge colonies numbering a few million, while their foraging tunnels can extend up to a 100m in length.

In this way, a single colony alone can reduce the woodwork of a whole block of houses into hollow skeletons within a couple of years. They are also known to chew through plastic, foam, insulation, copper, and asphalt to get to their food, which not only comprises wood, but paper, and cardboard or anything remotely containing cellulose.

Formosan termites (Coptotermes formosanus).

(Above) Formosan Termites (Coptotermes formosanus). Photo credit: USDA

It’s easy to see why Formosan Termites (Coptotermes formosanus) are called super termites; traits which the Asian Subterranean Termite (Coptotermes gestroi) also seems to share. I believe some Coptotermes species have the ability to replace their queen and king with secondary reproductives should something happen to their primary queen and king, making eradication of colonies doubly hard. Not all termite species have such regenerative ability.

Coptotermes curvignathus

(Above) Coptotermes curvignathus, a termite species that attacks live trees.

In tropical Asia, many Coptotermes termite species are well known as building and crop pests. Some of these are Coptotermes travians, Coptotermes gestroi, Coptotermes kalshoveni and Coptotermes curvignathus. Of these, Coptotermes gestroi is the most prevalent building pest. In Australia, Coptotermes acinaciformis is regarded as the most serious termite pest; oddly for a Coptotermes (which are mostly all subterranean in nest habit), Coptotermes acinaciformis builds large above ground mounds. In the USA, Coptotermes formosanus is the top termite pest having been introduced into the country 50 years ago. They have now spread over many states of southern USA, including Florida, California, Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Hawaii.

In the US, Formosan termites (Coptotermes formosanus) cost an estimated $1 billion a year in damage, repair, and other forced measures to deal with them. Hawaii has been badly hit because of the ideal soil and climate which resembles their native Taiwan. Collectively, Coptotermes termites cost the world billions of dollars annually in damage to buildings, structures and tree plantations, and they seem to be invading new countries, as some species do not really need soil to establish a nest.

Asian Subterranean Termite - Coptotermes gestroi

(Above) The Asian Subterranean Termite (Coptotermes gestroi) – A soldier.

While a wide range of elimination methods have been deployed over the decades, none have been really successful in eliminating these resilient termite species – once they are established in an area. I know of a housing area near where I used to stay, that was plagued by Coptotermes gestroialmost every house there was affected. They ate through doors, ceilings, toilet panels, parquet flooring, attacking books and cardboard boxes, and even moving onto old cloths!

The real reason why Coptotermes are such infamous pests

Coptotermes are so successful because they are able to survive in an urban environment which most other termite species are unable to, and in a wide range of soil types. In the absence of competition in an urban environment, Coptotermes naturally proliferate. Also, improper soil clearing methods before construction of houses or buildings, leave tree roots and wood debris embedded deep in the soil, which serves as a magnet for Coptotermes termites, sustaining new colonies, and these termites only make their presence felt once their colonies have largely expanded; by which time, they would have already inflicted significant damage.