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What do termites look like?

Termites are very small and similar in size to ants, which often leads to confusion. In fact, knowing the key differences between ants and termites is a good starting point for identification.

Owing to their secretive nature, termites can be hard to detect, especially with an untrained eye. You are far more likely to spot the signs of termite damage before you spot termites themselves. But like with any other pest, correct identification ensures the use of the most effective termite control methods and allows you to choose the most appropriate prevention solutions to avoid problems in the future.
 
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Termite castes

Termite colonies are made up of castes, which means that there are multiple termites that each play a specific role in the colony. There are three castes in a colony: reproductives, soldiers, and workers.

Reproductives can fall into three different categories: queens, kings, and alates, or termite swarmers. The kings and queens mate to produce workers, who have the potential to become alates. Alates from different colonies find each other to continue to survive and grow new colonies.

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Alates

These are the termites that are often confused with flying ants. Alates are the reproductive caste that swarm out from the nest to establish new colonies, eventually becoming queen or king. Flying termites often swarm around window sills or exterior lighting because they are attracted to light, so if you have an infestation, you’ll likely find their shed wings near these light sources.

Winged termites scattered on the floor

Role in the colony:

Termite swarmers are winged termites, responsible for reproduction.

Larvae

Very small and white in color, termite larvae are nurtured by other members of the colony until they have matured. The larvae send out a pheromone into the colony to determine which role is needed. Through a molting process, they will then develop into reproductives, soldiers, or workers to accommodate any shortages in the colony. When necessary, termite larvae can even reverse their molting process to take on a different role. If they are found, an active colony is likely growing nearby.

Baby termite or termite larvae

Role in the colony:

Larvae are the newly-hatched termites that will, in time, develop into either a reproductive, a soldier, or a worker.

Queens

The termite queen has a small termite body attached to a large chamber where she produces eggs. This distended chamber makes the queen immobile, so the termite nest must be built around her. A termite queen can lay up to 30,000 eggs in just one day. Uninterrupted, she can live up to 15 years, producing nearly 165 million eggs in her lifetime.

Termite queen surrounded by worker termites

Role in the colony:

The termite queen’s primary functions are to reproduce and provide nutrients for her offspring. She begins life as an alate, but eventually leaves her parents' colony in search of a new environment to nest.

Soldiers

Soldiers make up the next largest caste after the worker caste. They are equipped with large jaws, sticky fluids or chemical spray to fend off enemies.

Termite soldier

Role in the colony:

Soldiers are the protectors of the colony, guarding against attacks by predators such as ants.

Workers

Workers care for other termites in the nest, repair the nest when needed, and search for food, consequently forging the tunnels that cause the destruction of so many homes.

Termite workers on a rock

Role in the colony:

A termite colony’s largest caste is the workers. As their name suggests, they do most of the work (except defending and reproducing).

Why is termite identification so difficult?

Even armed with the above information, it may still be hard to accurately identify termites with the naked eye. Keep in mind that termites are usually only about ¼-½ inch long.

Identification is made even more difficult by the fact that termites often remain hidden away in properties for years without the owner’s knowledge. As previously mentioned, the first indicator of a potential problem is usually visible evidence of termite damage.

Our termite species guide offers greater detail on what termites look like and how to recognize the differences between termite species..


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