Other Common Names
(though they are unrelated to ants)
Synonyms and other taxonomic changes
used to be treated as a separate order Isoptera
Explanation of Names
from New Latin termes
), from Classical Latin tarmes
'a wood-worm', prob. derived from terere
2 subspecies and 47 species, in 19 genera of 4 families in mainland USA and Canada.(2)(3)
9 species, 4 unique in 5 genera of 3 families in Hawaii.(2)
~2,900 spp. in almost 300 genera of 9 families worldwide.(2)(4)
Overview of our fauna
Taxa not yet in the guide are marked (*)
Subfamily Prorhinotermitinae Prorhinotermes
Subfamily Coptotermitinae Coptotermes
Subfamily Heterotermitinae Heterotermes
* · Reticulitermes
Termite alates (‘swarmers’) are often confused with ants, webspinners, certain rove beetles and occasionally earwigs.
Alates possess a well developed distinct pronotum, two pairs of (more or less) equal sized wings, which detach along a suture. This leaves behind two pairs of ‘wing scales’. The wings are an elongated and extend significantly in length, oten times being equal to twice as long as the termite.
Our area; diversity increases towards the southern latitudes, with Termitidae predominantly making up the diversity in the Southwest while Kalotermitidae and Rhinotermitidae in the Southeast.
In Canada termites are found in British Columbia, Southern Alberta, Winnipeg Manitoba and Southern Ontario.
Worldwide; diversity increases towards the equator and maximum diversity is equatorial (half of that diversity falls between 18°N and 30°S)(5)
The official record of the northernmost and southernmost latitude termites are 54°N and 48°S. These records are held by Zootermopsis angusticollis
and Porotermes quadricollis
All termites live in colonies. Colony size and nest size may vary. Termites can be classified into three different nesting types: single-piece nesting (Group I), intermediate nesters (Group II) and separate piece nesters (Group III)
Single piece nesting involves individuals who nest within their food (wood) and otherwise do not leave said wood.
Intermediate nesters nest within their food (wood) but also forage to seek more food to nest in.
Separate piece nesters do not nest within their food and must leave their nest and forage to find it.
Archotermopsidae Group I nesting. These termites are behaviorally primitive, and strictly dampwood termites. Unlike most termites their diversity increases away from the equator. They often occupy mountainous habitats with cooler temperatures and damp climates (i.e the mountains of northern India, Japan and western North America).
Kalotermitidae Primarily Group I nesting. The majority of species in this family are dampwoods, drywoods or infest live wood. Members are the most specialized at single piece nesting, leaving very little evidence of their existence. Accumulated frass/fecal pellets are packed into unused chambers and/or is expelled via ‘kickout’ holes, which is typically how infestations are identified.
Rhinotermitidae Primarily Group II and Group III nesting. Species typically construct diffuse soil networks in which they forage in and use to access food sources. Additional constructions may include crude mounds and ‘mud tube’ like structures in which are used to forage above ground while protecting against predators and unfavourable conditions.
Termitidae Primarily Group III nesting. Their diversity drastically increases towards warmer regions. Unparalleled in diversity, these species have just as varied diets and behaviour. They are responsible for the amazing termite mounds and other structures seen in other parts of the world.
In North America, the native species (primarily the Termitinae, distributed mostly to the deserts and grasslands of the Southwest and Texas) are best known for encrusting vegetation to feed on (Gnathamitermes). They are subterranean in nature and rarely encountered by humans nor do they pose much economic concern. Little is known of their biology.
In North America, termites are most active in times corresponding to rain and warmth. Triggering of swarming and swarming behaviour is quite variable, even down to the population level. Typically however they correspond with rising temperatures, rain, a combination or non.
Termites feed off of organic material, primarily containing cellulose. Termites are split between the so called “lower termites” and “higher termites” aka Termitidae.
Termitidae have lost the protozoans (flagellates) associated with termites. Instead they posses a highly compartmentalized gut and additionally a highly diverse gut fauna composed of bacteria and archaea. Although termites may have arisen around 150MYA, Termitidae are relatively recent.(5)
It is thought that the loss of the symbiotic flagellates allowed them to exploit new niches and therefor explode in diversity. Consequently Termitidae are known to feed on lichen, soil, humus, leaf litter, grass, various roots, and wood. Some are even inquillines feeding off of the nest material of other termites and others opportunistically scavenge carrion. The subfamily Macrotermitinae has evolved to cultivate fungus, similar to fungus growing ants
Lower termites include the remaining subfamilies, all of these possess symbiotic flagella, which in turn possess symbiotic bacteria. With the exception of the harvester termites (Hodotermitidae) all other families within predominantly feed on wood and woody materials (i.e tree roots).
All the termites are eusocial
. Unlike other eusocial groups (e.g. ants
) termites do not have haplodiploid
genetics, and both males and females maintain the colony.* Compared to ants, termites posses a variety of castes
. In general however termite castes consist of three main groups: reproductive, workers and soldiers.
Termites have a variety of reproductive forms but they can mainly be separated into two groups: primary and secondary (neotenics). Most if not all possess a primary reproductive caste, referred to as an alate (or imago). These are the winged, dispersing individuals that found new colonies. Unlike the other castes they are not neotenous
Neotenics and their subtypes are extremely diverse in termites, but they can be grouped into three groups:
apterous neotenics/ergatoids - descended from the worker or pseudergate caste
brachypterous/nymphoid neotenic - descended from the nymphal line (would be queens and kings)
adultoid neotenic - equal in development to the alates (swarmers), sometimes identical sometimes lacking any pigment.
Lower termites typically produce the first two, higher termites typically produce none or one of the latter two.
Most termites possess a something akin to a worker caste. While it would imply they do all the work, a more applicable saying would be they comprise the majority of the colony. There are two main worker types: pseudergates (or false workers) and true workers. Pseudergates are essentially juveniles and retain developmental plasticity, and may or may not do work to varying degrees. True workers are a sterile caste specialized in carrying out colony labour. Genera typically possess one or the other.
Soldiers are perhaps the most ubiquitous and distinct termite caste, being found in every species. Only to be lost recently in certain higher termites (Mainly the Apicotermitinae although three Australian Termitinae genera have also lost them). Soldiers possess highly modified anatomy and morphology (particularly to the head) adapted for colony defense. Typically characterized by their well developed mandibles and a pigmented head. Many termites (particularly the Neoisoptera) have also evolved a variety of chemical defenses employing a number of glands. Soldiers cannot feed themselves and must rely on the workers and are therefore considered a burden on colony maintenance.
*A few species are known to be able to do pathogenesis
, with a minority capable establishing entire colonies asexually.