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Don`s Pest Control


The Biology of Subterranean Termites

Consumer Protection Information


Consumer Note: It is essential for the termite control professional to properly identify the termites in a property. Many termites found in trees, for example, will not attack buildings or other dry timber structures.

Dampwood termites attack sick or dead trees, decaying stumps or mouldy timber in the ground. They are seldom found in dry timbers in buildings. They form small independent nests.

Drywood termites occur mostly in tropical areas, where the atmospheric humidity is constantly above 75 percent. The introduced and highly destructive West Indian drywood termite. Specialist eradication procedures involves wrapping the entire building in plastic and using methyl bromide fumigation.

Subterranean termites are the serious pest species involved in major structural timber damage to buildings. Subterranean termites cause more than 98% of structural timber pest damage to homes.

Subterranean termites build a central nest from which they make use of underground tunnels to randomly forage for a timber (cellulose) source within 50 to 100 metres from the nest. If they make contact with a hard object such as a brick pier or concrete slab flooring they build mud-shelter tubes up and over the object. The mud-shelter tubes protect them from ants and other enemies and prevents dehydration as high humidity is essential for their survival. Termites are very soft bodied insects. When ever you encounter termites, they will not do you any physical harm whatsoever, excepting at worst, the nervous stress caused by the termites eating your house down! However, We can utilise various methods to deter the activity of subterranean termites in buildings.

Subterranean termites build a central nest often containing over one million termites, and have an extremely well ordered social system with engineering capabilities and a survival instinct developed over two hundred million years of evolution. Subterranean termites were on this earth before flowering plants. They grow fungi in their nests as a protein source and the worker caste obtain cellulose (such as, in timber) as the colony's energy source. They obtain moisture from the soil and moist decaying timber.

Subterranean termites need to maintain a high level of humidity and temperature (25 to 35c) in their central nest and the mud-shelter tubes through which they can travel for up to 100 metres from the central nest. Termites will eat through the centre of timbers leaving nothing but the outside coat of paint or a thin veneer of timber. They will pack mud in cracks in timber to prevent loss of humidity. They are extremely secretive and it takes a well experienced and trained eye to spot evidence of their early activity in buildings.

CONSUMER NOTE: It is the evidence of mud shelter tubes, soft or hollow timbers, "bubbling paint", mud-packing in timber crevices etc, that are likely indicators of subterranean termite activity. However, the absence of such outward signs, cannot be a guarantee that the termites are not getting into a building through critical (high risk) areas inaccessible to inspection.


(1) Coptotermes acinaciformis - A single colony may consist of well over one million termites; we estimate this species causes more than 70% of serious damage to buildings ; a very secretive termite; they build their nest out of sight, within the base of eucalyptus or other susceptible trees, or completely under the ground often within enclosed patios or under concrete on ground flooring which is ideal for moisture retention, temperature and humidity control within the nest; this species may produce a sub-nest away from the main colony nest and be contained in a wall cavity of a building where a reliable moisture source (leaking guttering/pipes/etc...) is available.

(2) Schedorhinotermes intermedius - occurs in the coastal regions ; a serious timber pest that can cause extensive structural timber damage to buildings; they commonly nest in tree stumps and under houses or in enclosed patios where timber has been buried or stored on the ground.

(3) Nasutitermes exitiosus - Attacks buildings in which severe damage may occur; their nest protrudes 30 to 75cm above the ground - so control can be easy as knocking the top off the nest and follow up insecticide treatment.

(4) Coptotermes frenchi - primarily a tree pest, but has caused significant damage to buildings .

(5) Heterotermes ferox - Attacks mainly fences and similar structures subject to wood decay from weathering.

(7) Coptotermes lacteus - Attacks dead wood in the ground; builds it's nest as a mound up to 2m high with hard clay walls; not considered a serious pest of buildings.


Subterranean termites or "white ants" as they are often called are not ants at all. They are in fact related to cockroaches with a similar two hundred million year history. Within a termite nest there are members of different casts, each with a different role to perform. These include the queen, king, the winged reproductive (young kings/queens), soldiers and workers.

The workers are by far the largest cast in the colony and the one that does the damage; they are a creamy translucent colour, soft bodied and carry out all work in the nest, including gathering food (partly digested timber); growing fungi in the nest for protein source; constructing tunnels; repairing and enlarging the nest; feeding the soldiers, the king, queen and also caring for and feeding the young nymphs until mature; they are 3 to 4mm long, have no wings, are sterile and blind; work 24 hours a day for several years life span in some species.

The soldiers commonly have a reddish coloured armoured head with pinchers which they use to crush an attacker such as ants; some have hard snout which eject a white sticky latex to ensnare their enemies; they are usually the first to be encountered by the home owner who opens their workings (shelter tubes or damaged timber) and the soldiers rush out to guard the opening whilst the workers repair the damage.

The winged reproductive (called "alates") are commonly seen when they swarm usually on a hot humid summer afternoon around dusk; they have eyes; are poor fliers but are swept along easily by the wind; they land; drop their wings; find a mate to become king and queen of a new colony. Seeing swarming termites is a sure danger sign as a very large nest is close by.


Life Cycle of Subterranean Termites

The queen following her hazardous flight and after mating becomes an egg laying machine; her body becomes hugely enlarged; she can live more than 25 years producing more that 2,000 eggs a day; the king and queen live in a central chamber and are tended by the workers.

Subterranean worker termites constantly groom each other and the soldiers; they also feed all the others. A valuable technique for the termite controller is to introduce an extremely fine and small amount of arsenic dust into the termite infested timbers; seal the opening and reinspect in 10 to 20 days. The arsenic dust may than be transported to the queen, the death of whom may mean the death of the colony.