What are Termites?


Termites or ants?

The key termite species

The termite life-cycle

The termite colony

What do they eat and how do they find it?

Termites or ants?

Termites are soft-bodied insects commonly known as “white ants”. However, termites are not ants at all.  In fact, they are more closely related to cockroaches!

Given the common confusion between termites and ants it’s worth knowing how to tell the difference, so you can respond accordingly.  Always call a pest professional if you suspect you have termites!

The Key Termite Species

There are over 300 species of termite in Australia, but only a handful of these are likely to attack your house and are capable of causing significant damage.  The main pest species are classed as subterranean termites which mean they typically spend most of their time underground only becoming visible when they start to cause significant damage.  The top 5 termite species are;

  • Mastotermes darwiniensis
  • Coptotermes species
  • Schedorhinotermes species
  • Nasutitermes species
  • Heterotermes species

Correct identification of the termite species is the key first step in any control program as it determines the best control strategy.  As the nest often cannot be located, the pest professional relies on actually seeing the termites to identify the species.  The soldier caste is used to identify the species, as each species has a different shaped head.

If you suspect you have termites do not touch the suspect areas or spray them with insecticide as this will not control the problem, but tends to frighten them away from the area.  This then makes it harder for the pest professional to identify the species present.

The Termite Life-Cycle

Alates (winged termites) are released from mature nests on warm humid nights in great numbers.  These are the kings and queens looking to set up a new nest.  Often you will see them flying around lights.  They fall to the ground and lose their wings before finding a mate.

They then walk off in pairs to find a suitable nesting site.  If you see winged termites (remember they can be easily confused with winged ants), it will mean there is a large nest nearby and you should have your home inspected.

Many of these winged termites die before they can start a nest.  But if they are successful, the nests of the most damaging species can rapidly grow to a size where they can start to cause damage after only 2-3 years.  At this stage the queen can turn in to an egg-laying machine, pumping out 2,000 eggs a day.  With a queen living for twenty years or more, a mature colony can consist of millions of termites and can cause damage over a large area.

The Termite Colony

The different castes in the colony have different roles to play; workers do the foraging, soldiers defend the colony, the queen lays eggs and alates (winged termites) fly off to start new colonies.  Some species have secondary reproductives.  These termites are also capable of producing eggs and support the egg laying capacity of the primary queen.  Sometimes they move away with some of the workers to start a new colony.


Sometimes termite nests are visible as mounds on the soil or in the tree (arboreal nests).  When the nests are visible they are easily dealt with by applying chemicals or through physical destruction.  However, the nests of many termite species are well hidden, often being underground or inside trees or tree-stumps.  This makes termites very difficult to control.


To stop damage to property, the worker termites need to be controlled.  To kill the colony and stop termites re-infesting the structure, the queen and any secondary reproductives also need to be killed.  Sometimes these secondary reproductives set up a new sub-colony away from the main nest.  In such circumstances it is necessary to control all sub-colonies to prevent termites re-infesting the property.  As nests are often impossible to locate, you need to utilize a control strategy that can kill the colony indirectly.

Termite baiting is the established technology for termite colony control.  It uses the termites own foraging behaviour to transfer insecticide back to the nest, killing the queen and eliminating the nest.

Termite Foraging Behaviour
What do they eat?

In their natural environment, termites are great re-cyclers, returning the nutrients of dead and dying trees to the soil.  Although termites do prefer some woods over others, they will eat a wide range of woods and the wood in your house is just as tasty as the trees in the bush! In fact termites will eat any material high in cellulose…… this means cardboard and paper are on the menu as well as wood.

Worker termites feed on the wood, which micro-organisms in their gut help them to digest.  The workers return to the nest to feed the queen, nymphs and younger workers by regurgitating food or through secretion from their anus (a process known as trophallaxis).  It is this behaviour that allows termite baits to control the colony.  Attractive, cellulose baits containing slow acting insecticides are fed on by the workers.  They unwittingly take the food and the insecticide back to the nest feeding it to the queen and other termites, ensuring the death of the colony.

How do they find it?

Termites radiate outwards from the nest in search of food.  Termites can travel up to 100m from their nest to a feeding site! (So the nest may not even be on your property).  Although there is an element of luck in whether they find a food source, they do use environmental cues to detect a suitable food source…. and the bigger the food source the more attractive it is.  In addition to the food source itself, termites require moisture.  Typically the moisture will be in the soil around the food source or in the food source itself.  However, as long as termites have access to moist soil, they can bring moisture into a feeding site through their foraging activities.


Any wood in direct contact with the ground is a potential, easy food source.  However, termites are capable of accessing wood well above the ground, such as wood in the roof of your home. As much as possible they travel hidden from view, inside the wood or walls, which is why they often remain hidden until significant damage is done.  They do not like light and can easily dry out, so a dark humid environment is preferred.

However, they are also capable of building mud tubes over any exposed areas to access food sources.  If you see any mudding or mud tubes, do not touch them or be tempted to break them open and certainly do not spray them with insecticide.  All these activities will temporarily scare them off making them harder to locate and control. Call a pest professional immediately!