Termite FAQ 1

50 most frequent questions about termites and their control

This termite FAQ article is contributed by the kind permission of Teresa Moreno, technical consultant of xylophagous division, of the Environmental Certification Agency, Spain, Miguel Gaju, professor of the University of Cordoba, and David Mora, Technical Director of Environmental Aplytec, and ISS FAcility Service, Spain. Spain is one of the few countries in the European region that has termites.

David Mora del Pozo, Experto en termitas


One of the most devastating pests of timber are subterranean termites. The presence of these insects in buildings located in cities and suburbs, even in Europe, creates a sense of insecurity in relation to the destructive power that these little creatures can inflict.

But what are termites? How can we identify and detect them. This article lists the 50 most common questions that people have, concerning termites, and their control.

1.     What are the termites?

Termites are social insects, commonly of whitish colouration, that live in the ground and eat wood. At first sight, if we break the frame of a damaged door, break a mud tube from the wall or the roof, or if we pick up an infested box from the floor, their appearance is likened to grains of rice on the run.

2.     How many species of termites exist?

All around the world, there are more than 2,000 known species; however, just some of them are economically important in agricultural, construction, and housing sectors. In the Iberian Peninsula, there are just three known native species: drywood termites known as Kalotermes flavícollis, the subterranean termites known as Reticulitermes Grassei and Reticulitermes Banyulensis.

3.     Where do they live?

Termites that usually attack wood in human property are subterranean termites, e.g; Reticulitermes spp, that nest in the ground and not in wood as commonly supposed. They just come to gnaw on cellulosed elements like wood, which serves to feed the rest of the colony underground. Therefore, the King and the Queen, directly responsible for the growth of the nest, live under the ground, in a very difficult location for man to access.

4.     What comprises a termite colony?

A termite colony is composed of individuals of different castes. The castes differentiate themselves both in appearance and function, within the colony. There are three different castes: workers, soldiers and reproductives. There may be primary and secondary reproductives. The primary reproductives (or termite alates), come from the nymphs; whereas the secondary reproductives can take the form of semi-adult worker nymphs.

5.     Which are the workers?   

The workers are a few millimetres wide (3-5 mm) and have a whitish colour, which people might confuse for worms  Their function inside the colony, (besides feeding on and collecting wood), is to make and maintain the structure of the termite nest, and take care of the eggs and nymphs.

Termite FAQ 1

Photo by David Mora.

6.     Which are the soldiers?

The soldiers look similar to the workers, but their heads are bigger, and their jaws are very well developed for their defensive function within the colony. They are not capable of feeding themselves, so they receive food from the workers.

7.     Which are the nymphs?

The nymphs are a caste in intermediate stages of growth, and they give rise to alates or termite swarmers. Their appearance is like the worker termites, but juvenile reproductives have bigger size and some little wings, which can differentiate them from the rest.

8.     Which are the secondary reproductives or neotenics?

This caste is different from the rest, because its head is lightly obscured. Its size is slightly larger than the worker termites. Their function in the colony is to replace the real couple in the laying of eggs, should something happen to them, or to even complement them, in very large nests.

9.     Which are the termite alates?

The termite alates are the ones founding new nests. They go out of the colony between the months of April and May, flying some meters, and then alighting. They lose their wings, and pair up with the opposite sex to start a new colony. Once they pair up, they look for a place where they can hide and begin the process of mating and egg-laying. Reticulitermes alates could be confused with alates of ants because their colour is dark, almost black.

10.   What is a termite swarming event?

A termite swarming event is a massive flight of alates taking place in a short span of time. It can be observed in infested houses, as a large group of winged termites going out of the same place and dispersing all around, congregating around the lighting in the house.

11.   When are the termite swarms produced?

The formation of the termite swarms coincide with changes in temperature and light intensity. These two parameters with, an enough wet environment after the spring rains, create suitable conditions at the end of April and beginning of May (for southern Europe; other regions differ). 

12.   How can we know if they are ants or alates?

The winged form of the termites and ants are similar, but we can distinguish them if we observe that termites don’t have the narrowing in the waist, which can be observed in ants. All the 4 wings of termites are equal in size and with the same shape, in addition to having a translucent colour; whereas the wings of ant alates are different in size and shape; they are also transparent, not translucent.

13.   What do they eat?

Termites feed themselves with cellulose, a polysaccharide which is part of the composition of wood. Every kind of wood and its derivatives like paper, cardboard, etc., are attacked by termites.

14.   Can they eat materials like MDF or chipboard?

Both MDF (medium density fibreboard) and chipboard are composed of wood particles joined by a synthetic resin. This resin is not a repellent for termites, as they are going to attack them in the same way, consuming the wood that is contained in these kinds of materials.

15.   Are they active throughout the whole year?

Termites are active throughout the whole year. For this reason, the woods that are present in a house are in risk of being attacked continuously. Although it is true that during winter, their metabolism slows down, the kind of temperature and humidity existing inside today’s houses makes for a favourable environment for continuous termite activity.

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