Rearing Termites

Many people consider termites as a major pest these days; meanwhile some people consider termites as a good pet or even a good source of food for their pets (e.g. chicken, reptiles, ants or even other critters). This article is dedicated to the new section about rearing termites. Like ants, termites can be reared, although it’s more difficult in the long term, as they have different requirements to ants. Starting a termite colony is relatively easy and caring for your colony isn’t as hard as you might think – It’s the long term maintenance that can be challenging.

There are 2 main ways to start a termite colony.

  1. Starting a colony from primary reproductives, aka alates.
  2. Starting a colony from secondary reproductives.

Starting a colony with alates

Now let’s discuss how to start. As I mentioned as the first method, starting a termite colony from alates is one of the easiest and most efficient ways to start a termite colony. It has its own perks. Usually after rainstorms or with slight rains, termite colonies will start sending off alates, aka the flying termites with reproductive males and females.

odontotermes alate

An alate with wings, Odontotermes spp.

Usually, a termite colony sends out hundreds or thousands or perhaps just a few in a termite swarm, but basically, a lot of them die before they can meet with a mate. A termite alate has 2 pairs of wings on either side of its thorax; they are usually attracted to street lights and other sources of light emitting equipment. This is one of the easiest ways to catch some termite alates.

The alates will then shed their wings and start searching for a mate. Once a male finds a female, it starts to run behind it while touching its antenna against the female’s abdomen.  This behavior is known as a “tandem run”. Well, separate some of those tandem running pairs from other alates and also make sure you don’t keep several tandem running pairs in the same container which can lead the males to fight over all the females.

odontotermes pair tandem running

An Odontotermes pair tandem running

So now you will have to give them a proper setup for them to start a colony. The setup may vary according to species (for example, Kalotermitidae are more successful in wood setups, while humus feeding termites mainly love humus rich soil). But mainly all other termites can pass the founding stage in cotton and tissue setups. If you are an ant keeper you will know how to make a test tube setup but when you are making a setup for termites it’s a bit different. To make this setup you will need a test tube, cotton/tissue/cardboard/soil/wood, and a pencil or pen. So first you’ll have to sterilize the test tube to kill any harmful bacteria and fungi. Then fill 1/4 of the test tube with water (Note: this step is unnecessary if you are making a setup for dry wood termites).

test tube setup for rearing termites

Test tube setup for rearing termites.

Then slowly insert the cotton or the other substrate into the tube using a pencil or pen. Make sure the substrate is wet (but not too wet); it can cause too much humidity that will kill the termites. Fill up to like 5/6th of the test tube with substrate and make sure the water is evenly distributed among the substrate. And then make a small hole in the substrate for your termite alate pair to dig in. Then close the test tube and leave it in a dark place for them to settle in. Make sure that you don’t check on them every day because it can lead them to die from stress or even eat their own babies. Most probably, your alate pair will get larvae in a month or a few months (according to the species).

odontotermes founding pair

An Odontotermes spp founding pair.

coptotermes gestroi pair with eggs

Coptotermes gestroi pair with eggs in test tube.

Afterwards, the alate pair will care for those tiny larvae until they molt into mature workers and soldiers. The process of larvae to adult can also take up to 3 weeks or more according to the species. When the workers mature, they will need to be fed; if you have termites from Kalotermitidae they will directly feed on the wood that you gave them, Rhinotermitidae species mainly feed on wood and if you gave them a tissue filled test tube setup they will simply eat the tissue in it.

If you have something like Macrotermes or Odontotermes, they are fungus growers and you will have to provide them with the necessary wood for them to create their fungus gardens (and ensure they do make them), or else they will die off. Other Termitidae are mainly wood and soil humus feeders, so you should adjust their setups accordingly.

odontotermes newborn hatchlings

Odontotermes newborn hatchlings, with the first workers and soldier.

Starting a colony with secondary reproductives

This method is also one of the best methods of rearing termites by starting a termite colony via secondary reproductives, but it can have some downsides. So firstly, termite secondary reproductives are known as ‘Neotenic’ individuals, and this Neotenic caste is divided into 2 parts such as:

  1. Ergatoid Neotenics (Secondary reproductive caste which arises from the worker caste)
  2. Nymphoid Neotenics (Secondary reproductive caste which arises from developing nymphs)

Ergatoid Neotenics

These neotenics are seen less than nymphoid neotenics. But this is also an efficient method to start a termite colony, depending on the particular species. You will have to catch yourself a good amount of termite workers and if you like, soldiers too. Within a week or so, the workers will realize that the royal scent is absent within the colony, so the workers will start molting into ergatoid neotenics and take over the colony’s egg laying role.

ergatoid neotenic of microcerotermes

Ergatoid neotenic of Microcerotermes (the one with pale abdomen).

Mainly, the ergatoids will compete until 1 male and female remains. But sometimes, it can remain as 1 male and several females. They will start laying eggs like within a month or maybe 2. But as I said, a lot of species don’t have this caste so you can’t start a colony with only workers in many species; but in my personal experience, I’ve seen this caste in Microcerotermes, some Nasutitermes, Reticulitermes and a few more species.

Nymphoid Neotenics

The most common type of neotenics formed in many termite colonies. These nymphoid neotenics arise from the developing alate nymphs. These neotenics arise mainly in mature colonies in the case of helping the primary queen to produce more eggs to boost the colony. In case the primary king dies, then a nymphoid neotenic king can be formed to replace him.

So this is more effective than ergatoids and these nymphoid neotenics also tend to live longer than ergatoid neotenics. These neotenics are also found in Kalotermitidae, Rhinotermitidae, And many Termitidae species like Microcerotermes, Nasutitermes and also the group Termes.

nymphoid neotenic king

Nymphoid neotenic king of Coptotermes gestroi.

So if you are hoping to start a colony with neotenics, just give them a bigger setup and plenty of food, and they will slowly adapt to the environment you are providing them. Hopefully, these pointers were helpful for those interested in rearing termites.

Article and photos courtesy of Dulneth Wijewardana from Sri Lanka, who has been rearing termites and ants as a hobby for the past few years. Catch his YouTube channel at Termites International.