Termite Colony

The subterranean termite colony is thought by some to function as a “super-organism,” which means individual worker and soldier termites or groups of these types work together to ensure the colony’s survival. For example, some termites have the responsibility to do general housework and repair. They spend their time removing mold and mildew from tubes or tunnels in the wood, repairing holes in tubes, and shoring up the walls of tunnels in the wood with soil.

Just like your family, termite colonies need food, water and shelter to survive and they work together to gather these resources. If these conditions are met, termite colonies can mature in two to four years.

To make sure all of the work gets done, each colony includes three levels (castes) of termite society: workers, soldiers and reproductives. Each termite caste is assigned a specific job to keep the colony alive, such as the workers who gather food, soldiers who build shelter and reproductives who produce and tend to the young (larvae). The colony’s king and queen are known as primary reproductives, as they are the original founders of the colony. 

Reproductives play a particularly important role in creating new termite colonies. Whether through swarming or budding, reproductives are the reason new colonies of termites move into your home and neighborhood.

Termite Colony Size
Life in the termite colony moves at a slow pace in general, certainly for the first two years. The queen is just beginning her seven to ten years of peak egg production, and the number of individuals in the colony is very low. Colonies that were started this spring with a pair of adults (queen and king) contain less than a dozen nymphs – and maybe one soldier.

By this time next year, there may be about 400 individuals (the range can be 51 to 984), and there may be as many as eight soldiers. This percentage (usually two percent) of soldiers in a colony remains in mature colonies.

The body size of the nymphs and soldiers in young colonies is significantly smaller than those in mature colonies. It seems what a young colony needs is numbers of individuals; they may be small, but they get the job done.

Drywood Termite Colonies
Drywood termite colonies are located inside wood and are typically much smaller than subterranean termite colonies. The maximum drywood termite colony size is approximately 4,800 termites.

These colonies live entirely inside the wood and do not make contact with the soil. Unlike subterranean termite colonies, drywood termite colonies do not have a traditional group of worker termites. Instead, immature termites complete the tasks that are usually assigned to the worker termites.

Subterranean Termite Colonies
Subterranean termite colonies are built in the soil below ground. In the U.S., a subterranean termite colony typically contains between 60,000 and 1 million termites.

Picture of Subterranean Colony:
closeup picture of colony

Subterranean termite colonies (including Formosan subterranean termite colonies) live in a network of small rooms and tunnels used for storing food and raising their young (larvae). Since these colonies are underground, they are often hidden from the naked eye and difficult to locate except by skilled termite specialists.

Subterranean termite colonies grow and expand their foraging territories (below ground) during summer and other seasons of the year. As foraging “boundaries” become indistinct, worker termites from adjacent colonies may intermingle at common food sites. This meeting may occur in natural areas or in urban neighborhoods, where it is likely to have more than one termite colony infesting a house (at one time or different times, particularly in high termite areas like the Southeast).

At these common feeding locations, there are varying degrees of “getting along” between workers of different colonies. Unlike wasps and ants, subterranean termites tend not to distinguish or be upset by nestmates and non-nestmates mingling at their food sites. The soldiers in these colonies are often found attacking natural predators (typically ants), and not termites from other colonies.

Formosan Termite Colonies
Formosan termites, a species of subterranean termite, can create colonies containing 350,000 to 2 million workers. Formosan termites are extremely destructive, in part because their colony size is much larger than termite species native to the U.S.

Colony inside Wood Beam:
termites crawling in wood beam

To date, the largest known Formosan termite colony found in the U.S. contained an estimated 70 million termites and weighed 600 pounds. This Formosan termite colony was located in a public library in Algiers, La., near New Orleans.

In the Beginning: How New Subterranean Termite Colonies Form

Gary Bennett, Ph.D., Purdue University

New subterranean termite colonies can begin in one of two ways, through a swarm or by the budding of a new colony. In subterranean termite colonies, the role of primaries, or winged kings and queens, is to meet, mate and start new colonies. This process is called “swarming.” Termites whose role is to “back-up” the primary queen in their colony by producing extra eggs are called supplementary reproductives. Their role is to help to expand the colony’s foraging territory – a process called “budding.”

These roles allow termite colonies to disperse, establish new colonies in any soil environment, and ultimately invade other structures in order to find more wood (and thus, a more ample supply of food). To better understand how these new subterranean termite colonies are formed, let’s take a closer look at the swarming and budding processes.

During the course of each year, numerous small, immature termites from established colonies transform into larger nymphs with wing buds. Some time later, these individuals further transform into sexually mature males and females called swarmers or alates. Swarmers have two pairs of long narrow wings of equal size. Unlike other termites in the colony, swarmers are dark-colored, and almost black in some species.

The combination of warm temperatures and rain in the spring leads swarmers to leave the nest in large numbers by flying through mud tubes, which are specially constructed tunnels for the termites to use to exit the colony. Termites continue to swarm throughout the warm season, although these swarms are less frequent than those during the spring. Colonies normally swarm only once per season, but may swarm multiple times. Later swarms generally do not match the intensity of the first swarm.

Subterranean termites typically swarm during the day, although Formosan termites (a species of subterranean termite) swarm at night. Swarm flights are brief, and because swarmers are not good flyers, they are often transported by prevailing winds. Typically, winged termites do not fly very far; but if the wind is strong, swarmers can be carried great distances before reaching the ground.

If the colony queen dies or if a part of the colony becomes isolated from the primary reproductive, supplementary reproductives may take on the role of the queen. As a colony increases in size, groups of foragers often form satellite colonies or areas of concentrated activities. Dramatic weather events like floods and soil disruption due to construction can separate termites from nest mates in the soil. When groups become physically separated from the rest of the colony and their queen, supplementary reproductives are produced in the isolated group to help establish a new colony.

While we know the majority of new subterranean termite colonies are formed by swarmers, we do not yet know how often budding is used to form new colonies. But because the flight of winged termites is more visible to homeowners, swarming will most likely remain the most well-known process of developing new subterranean termite colonies.