Termites share certain physical traits that will help you distinguish them from ants or other pests. They lack a pronounced “waist.” Termites have straight antennae that look like strings of tiny beads. Their hind ends are rounded. Only the reproductive have functional eyes; workers and soldiers are blind and lack eyes.

ermites are eusocial insects that are classified at the taxonomic rank of infraorder Isoptera, or as epifamily Termitoidae within the cockroach order Blattodea. Termites were once classified in a separate order from cockroaches, but recent phylogenetic studies indicate that they evolved from close ancestors of cockroaches during the Jurassic or Triassic. It is possible, however, that the first termites emerged during the Permian or even the Carboniferous. Approximately 3,106 species are currently described, with a few hundred more left to be described. Although these insects are often called white ants, they are not ants.

Do you know … How much damage do termites cause around the world each year?

  1. $90 million
  2. $300 million
  3. $10 billion
  4. $40 billion

According to a citation in a report on a new hybrid termite from the University of Florida (UF), termites are responsible for global economic loss of $40 billion (answer d.), with much of it caused by two species found in the U.S. that are now creating hybrid colonies in South Florida.

A termite colony is made up of very specific groups of termites that do very specific chores to enable the colony to survive.

Worker Termites

Worker termites are exactly what their name indicates: they do the work of the colony. Whether male or female, their roles in life are to build and maintain the nest; venture out to forage for food; feed, care for, and groom the other colony members, including the developing larvae, soldiers, and reproductives; build mudtubes (in subterranean species) that connect the underground nest to above-ground wood; help defend the colony when needed; and cause the extensive damage to homes and buildings in which they live.

Workers are sterile, wingless, and blind. To build and maintain the colony, the worker termites eat the wood – their hardened mouthparts are adapted for this, as well as for chewing up food which they regurgitate to feed the other termite castes.

Because they are needed to keep the colony going, there are always more workers than any other caste.

 And because they are so numerous, they are the termite that is most likely to be seen (except for the swarmers, but we’ll get to that below). They are white and up to about 3/8 inch in length, thus are sometimes thought to be white ants.

Reproductive Termite Alates

Because neither the workers nor the soldiers can reproduce, there must be another caste that can keep the colony alive and growing. This caste is the “alates” or reproductive termites. These are the flying termites (sometimes thought to be winged ants) that swarm out of the nest to find a mate and reproduce.

They fly only a very short while, then land and discard their wings. If a male and female have mated, they will then burrow into the ground to begin a new colony.

Sometimes thought to be winged ants, the winged termites can be differentiated from ants primarily by their stout bodies that have no “waist”; the two body parts of ants are distinctly separated. (See more differences at: How to Tell the Difference Between Ants and Termites.)

Alates are brownish to dark black; they are the only termites that have wings.

King and Queen Termites

Although very few of the alates survive to mate and form colonies, those that do become the king and queen of the new nest. The queen will begin to lay eggs within days, and continue laying eggs throughout her life.

Initially, the king and queen care for the eggs, but once workers develop, these termites take over the caretaking chores, along with their other responsibilities (see Worker Termites above) … and the cycle begins again.