Statistics show that over 20% of all homes in Australia have been or will be affected by termites. Currently, these pests cause over AU$700 million worth of damage to property every year in Australia. With so many homes affected, the opportunity exists for knowledgeable termite pest controllers to operate profitable businesses.
It should be no surprise that Australia suffers from termites. There are over 3,000 known species and 300 of them can be found here. The landmass offers a near perfect range of habitats that support termites, with northern areas at higher risk due to the more tropical climate. Only Tasmania escapes the worst effects of these insects.
Termites are often called ‘white ants’, which is confusing because they are not ants at all. They are more closely related to cockroaches.
These pests are among the most successful of all insects on the planet, found almost everywhere except the Antarctic. They significantly affect the atmosphere, as they are supposedly responsible for producing over 10% of the atmospheric methane, one of the greenhouse gases. The combined weight of all termites on the planet is five times that of the combined weight of all humans!
Termites are social insects that live in organized colonies divided into a caste system which dictates their role, work and physical appearance. Colonies vary in size and structure depending on the species. They can be as small as a few hundred insects or involve giant nests consisting of millions of individuals.
All colonies contain males known as kings and females called queens. There may be more than one of each in every colony. Termite queens are the longest lived of all insects, with some still laying eggs at 50 years old.
The rest of the colony is made up of infertile workers and soldier termites. Workers may be male or female. As their name suggests, they are responsible for the labour in the colony such as foraging for food, nest maintenance and caring for the nymphs.
Soldiers protect the colony from attack, which mainly comes from ants. They possess larger heads and jaws than normal termites. They use these enlargements to either fight off invaders or jam their own heads into holes to plug a breach in the nest or mud tunnels. Soldiers also have a role in organizing the workers.
Unlike many insects, which go through complete metamorphosis (egg, larva, pupa and adult), termites undergo incomplete metamorphosis. They start as eggs which hatch into nymphs. Nymphs moult several times to become adults but the number of moults varies by species and the role of the termite in the colony. The length of time between egg and adult can vary depending on temperature, the availability of food and, to a certain extent, the needs of the colony.
During the first few moults the nymphs gradually take on more adult characteristics. Subject to the needs of the colony most will become workers but some individuals continue to moult to become either soldiers or alates. Pheromones control the caste system in the colony, determining how many of each type exists at one time.
Alates are the winged, fertile termites that swarm from the nest to start new colonies. The flying termites can be male or female and pair once they find a suitable site for a new colony.
The queen of a new colony may only lay 10–20 eggs a day. Once the colony is a few years old, she may be laying up to 1,000 eggs a day but a mature queen, in a fully established colony, can produce 40,000 eggs a day.
Termites eat cellulose, using one-celled creatures in their gut to break it down for digestion. The cellulose they digest may comprise grass, dead leaves and rotten trees, making termites an essential part of the eco-system. Unfortunately, our houses, furniture and belongings often contain cellulose. Termites do not care about the source of their next meal, which is why they have become such a serious pest in many homes.
It is the workers that turn the cellulose into digestible food. They feed other members of the colony through a food sharing process known as trophallaxis. The workers pass on the digested cellulose and gut bacteria to other termites, who are unable to feed themselves. Soldiers, for example, cannot feed on wood directly due to their large jaws. In this way, the workers feed the soldiers, nymphs, and kings and queens.
Termites are often grouped into three categories: drywood, dampwood and subterranean. There is overlap in their habitats and some termite families have species that can fall into different categories.
Drywood termites can survive in an environment with a lower moisture content than other types. They still need water to live but will get what they need from the wood they feed on, such as dead trees or even timber that has been treated against damp. The colonies tend to be smaller so, although they can cause damage, an infestation occurs at a relatively slow rate.
Dampwood termites need a higher water content to thrive. They feed on wood that has started to rot and, in some dampwood termite species, their digestion is aided by the fungus responsible for the rotting. Colonies can be large but unless the property has a leaking roof or gutter or suffers from rotting wood, this category is less often seen. They live in or on the wood and not in the soil.
Subterranean termites are typically the greatest threat to a home. These termites are ground dwelling, so they obtain moisture from the soil. The colonies can be large and even separate from the dwelling, connected by underground tunnels or when they go above ground, mud-walled galleries. Typically, subterranean termites eat only soft wood and along the grain. This is the reason for the common ‘layered’ look to wood damaged by this type.
There is a fourth type, the Formosan termite (Coptotermes formosanus), which is closely related to the Australian members of the Coptotermes family. The Formosan termite is often classed as the most destructive termite species in the world. So far, this species has not been found in Australia and authorities are working hard to prevent it arriving. If this species gained a foothold here, the consequences could be devastating.
As with all chemicals, caution is needed.