Termites belong to the Isoptera insect order. Isoptera refers to the adult primary reproductives which possess two pairs of equal length wings. The body of a termite is rather simple indicating that termites diverged very early in insect evolution from a generalized insect ancestor with gradual metamorphosis. Although simple in morphology, termites are advanced in social behaviour.

Recent tabulations indicate that there are some 2,800 validly named termite species in 285 genera in the world.

The vast majority of termite species occur in the tropics. Like ants, wasps and bees, termites are social insects. They exhibit brood care within their social community or colony. A colony is really just a very large family of insects. Within this family there is overlap of parent and offspring generations. Some of the offspring diverge from the normal course of development to become various castes. Unlike most insects which have only one linear developmental pathway, termites have branching developmental pathways.

THE FAMILY

Termites are said to live in colonies but this is misleading. A colony is really just a very large family of insects. One of the most profound and defining attributes of the termite family is that it is built on monogamy. Termites are faithful. They are probably the most monogamous group of animals on the earth. The evolutionary outcome of this commitment to monogamy is a large and integrated family. As far as biologists know, termite colonies are the most sophisticated families ever to evolve in the universe. Human families are not as nearly advanced. Humans, in contrast to termites, have the most advanced, non-family based type of social system known in the universe.

Termite colonies consist of 3 basic castes: workerssoldiers and reproductives.

Eggs
hatch into tiny immatures called larvae which are incapable of feeding. Larvae are genetically capable of developing into any castes. Time of year and diet determine the developmental pathway of any given termite.

Workers
comprise the bulk of the population. In lower termites there are false pseudergates which retain the potential to become alates. Workers feed all the nymphs, soldiers and reproductives. They also dig tunnels, locate food and water, and build and repair nests. In some species, that includes mushroom gardening.

Soldiers
develop from nymphs, pseudergates and workers. The metamorphosis take place through moulting process. The transition stage is called a presoldier. With their specialized mouthparts, they provide colony defense against numerous predators such as ants and centipedes.

Reproductives
develop either from alates or neotenics. Alates are winged termites and were produced at a particular season. The alates develop wings and compound eyes and will fly out. After flying out, the alates will break off their wings and will be known as dealates. Dealate form a tandem courtship pairs, and after a brief courtship starts a family. The pair is now the queen and king of the new colony.

Primary reproductive
females, or queens, vary in size depending on the species. Usually they are 10 cm in length and produce thousands of eggs a day. She is relatively immobile and is dependent on the workers. She is licked and fed by the workers. She is also attended by her relatively small mate, the king. There is usually just 1 pair of king and queen in a colony but some species have a low incidence of colonies with multiple reproductives.

LIFE CYCLE

Subterranean termites are ground-inhabiting, social insects that live in colonies. A colony of subterranean termites may be up to 18-20 feet below the soil surface to protect it from extreme weather conditions.

The mature termite colony has three castes: reproductive (king and queen), soldiers, and workers.

New colonies are formed when winged males and females (alates) from a parent colonyemerge in flight or swarm. Alates are also known as swarmers. Both male and female swarmers fly from the colony and travel varying distances. Only a small percentage of swarmers survive to develop colonies – the majorities fall prey to birds, toads, insects and many die from dehydration or injury.

A pair that survives immediately makes a very small nest under the ground before mating. They dig soil near wood, enter the chamber and seal the opening. Initially, the new queen termite lays only a few eggs. The fertilized female usually deposits 6 to 20 eggs during the first six months following the swarming flight and she may lay more than 60,000 eggs in her lifetime. The male (king), remains with the female because periodic mating is required for continued egg development. The royal queen is known to survive up to 25 years!

TERMITES’ BEHAVIOUR

The queen may live up to 25 years and lay more than 60,000 eggs in her lifetime. The eggs are yellowish white and hatch after an incubation of 50 to 60 days.

Eggs are not deposited continuously; in fact, only a few hundred are deposited during the first year. In subsequent years, the young queen grows larger and lays more eggs. Larvae hatch from the eggs within several weeks and are cared for by the new king and queen. The colony stabilizes when the queen reaches maximum egg production. If the queen dies, secondary reproductives take over the queen’s duties

Workers
After they undergo the larva stage, the full-grown workers are soft-bodied, wingless, blind and creamy white. They are about 1/8 inch long and have no wings.

They perform all the labour in the colony such as obtaining food, feeding other caste members, nursing for the larvae, excavating wood, and constructing tunnels. Workers mature within a year and live from three to five years.

People always wonder how these little soft bodies creature can destroy our property and how they digest those hard cellulose things.

Here is the answer. Although worker termites are soft-bodied insects, their hard, saw-toothed jaws work like shears and are able to bite off extremely small fragments of wood, a piece at a time. Termites often infest buildings and damage lumber, wood panels, flooring, sheetrock, wallpaper, plastics, paper products and fabric made of plant fibres.

Subterranean termites cannot digest cellulose directly. They depend on protozoa living in the termite hind gut to break down the cellulose to simple acetic acid, which termites can digest. Worker termites and older nymphs consume wood and share their nourishment with the developing young, other workers, soldiers and reproductives.

Soldiers
For soldiers, synonym with their name, their task is just to defend the colony from their enemies such as ants, rare roaches and other animals. In most species, the soldiers are equipped with hard and large mandibles. Some species have latex liquid which they will spray when under attack. They depend on the workers to feed and groom them. In some species, the ratio of soldier and worker is 2:8.

Alates/Swarmers

The Malay community call them ‘kelkatu’. Normally, they actively fly out after rainy days. Why at that time? Most probably because at that time the wind condition is quite stagnant and the temperature is cozy. They are attracted to light and at that point of time they will found their mates.

Only at the alate stage do termites have eyes. Once they have found their mates, they will drop their wings and find suitable a place to start their colony. This is the beginning of a new termite colony.

They will mate and the female will start laying eggs. The female will eventually become the queen and the male will become the king. The queen will still find the food for the first hatch of their nymphs.

TERMITE ECOLOGY

Termites feed on dead plant cell, wood, leaf litter, roots, dead herbs and grasses, dung and humus. Chemically, their food can be characterized as lignocellulosic matter, which is the most abundant organic material in the biosphere. Termites are able to digest cellulose, and some species can also digest lignin, with the assistance of symbiotic intestinal protozoa and bacteria. Many termites also have symbiotic relations with nitrogen-fixing bacteria. In converting lignocellulosic biomass to insect biomass, termite production supports a large proportion of tropical vertebrate biodiversity, including many species of amphibians, reptiles, birds and ground foraging insectivorous mammals.

Why Are Termites Considered Pest?

Termites cause great losses to man. They are known as pests of wood in houses. Not just that, they are also pests in the agriculture sector.

Some studies show that losses caused by termites are four times higher than losses caused by fire. In urban areas, termites damage wooden structures such as doorframes, kitchen cabinets, parquet flooring and even roof trusses.

In Malaysia, Coptotermes spsare the most common species that cause extensive damage to buildings. A single colony ofCoptotermes can search for food over an area covering a distance of about 100 metres. They can also affect top levels of multi-storey buildings.

In 2004 in Kedah, Malaysia, a man died after he fell through a wooden floor which was damaged by termites. In another case reported in 2006, a water tank fell from from the ceiling because the support beams had been eaten by termites.

Genus of Coptotermes are also known to be the most destructive termites in the Malaysian agriculture sector. They normally attack rubber and mango trees causing great loss to the industry. They often attack the heartwood and consume it before working outwards. The infested tree often dies and collapses. It is quite simple to tell that a tree is infested with active termites. The new leaves normally turn yellow and eventually the other leaves also show the same symptom.

How Do Termites Infest Your Buildings?

Termites gain entry into buildings through cracks in the foundations and wall floor interface. Beside that, electrical conduits, along water pipes in the walls and telephone lines are the best and strategic areas for them to penetrate into premises.

Once termites have gained entry into buildings, the infestation goes unnoticed for months as they conceal their presence with mud tubes or traverse behind wooden structures. The infestation normally goes unnoticed because the termites do not eat the external part, for example, if they infest parquet flooring, they will not feed on the shellac layer.

HOW TO MINIMISE TERMITE ATTACKS

Termites, particularly the subterranean species, are arguably one of the worst nightmares of property owners, more so in a tropical country like Malaysia. Each year, property owners spend millions on damages and repairs, not to mention the accompanying inconvenience and hassle.

Building maintenance is critical to eliminating and preventing conditions that are conducive to termite activity in or around buildings. Even the best maintained buildings are not spared by insidious subterranean termites that are known to forage as far as 100 metres from their underground colonies.

An inspection by pest management professionals is undoubtedly the best way to head off termite problems before they cause extensive and expensive damage to your building. Even if these inspections are not done annually, you should make it a point to conduct your own inspections during routine maintenance chores. A good inspection includes looking not only for termites, but also for conditions conducive to their activity.

Here are some tips on how to minimise termite problems in and around your buildings

Plan Before Planting

Before you get down to buying you favourite shrubs or trees and planting them around your building, you need to think about how large these plants will eventually be in 10 to 15 years later. Do not plant shrubs or trees too close to the foundation of your building. Plants that are too close to your building may hide activities of termites and other pests as well. Tree or shrub limbs touching your building can damage siding and allow ants an entry point. Prune the plants to prevent them from blocking airflow through foundation vents.

Reduce Mulches In Landscaping

Use mulch sparingly, if at all. This goes for organic mulches like sawdust, wood chips and crushed stone and pea gravel. Termites may not find much nutritional value in mulch, but they do appreciate its moisture-retaining and temperature-insulating qualities. All mulches, including inorganic ground covers like gravel and black plastic, help in maintaining moist soil conditions and reducing weeds. Moisture in the soil is likely to attract termites which feed on cellulose-containing mulches. If you need to use mulches for your landscape, never spread them until they touch the foundation or lowest course of siding on your building. While it may enhance the appearance of your building, it can allow termites to use the cover of mulch to invade your building undetected.

Protect Your Siding

Siding should always be above the grade or soil line, preferably at least 15cm above it; otherwise, you could have decay problems as well as termite problems. Ensure that plants and flower beds do not touch the foundation. Avoid digging up the soil within 15cm of your building or putting new topsoil on top of it as this will allow termites access to your foundation.
Eliminate Wood-ground Connections

A good building practice is to ensure that structural wood does not touch the ground. Make sure that wood products such as latticework, door and window frames end at least 12cm above ground level. This is to minimise termites from accessing the three things they need to thrive: food, moisture and shelter. Take the wood away from the ground, and you thwart their access to each of these things.

Use Termite-resistant Timbers

Poor building designs may contribute to termite infestations. Identify and correct structural deficiencies that attract or promote such termite attacks. Termite-resistant wood and other building materials may aid in reducing damage. Many buildings have fallen victims to termite attacks due to the poor choice of timbers used. For structural timbers, properties such as density, strength properties, natural durability – mainly termite resistance – and treatability are important.

According to tests conducted by local researchers, including those from the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia (FRIM), certain timbers are known to be resistant to termite attack. The termite-resistant timbers include Balau, Bekak, Belian, Bitis, Chengal, Gelam, Giam, Ipil, Kundang, Leban, Malabera, Malagangai, Merbau, Merbau Lalat, Pelawan, Penaga, Penyau, Ranggu, Resak, Teak, Temak Batu, Tembusu and Tempinis. These species are classified as very durable and durable in tests involving wooden stakes partially buried in the ground. The resistance of wood to termites can be influenced by the age and size of trees from which it was obtained, and the portion of the trunk used.

Use Treated Timber & Resistant Siding Materials

Although some species are considered as susceptible to termite attacks, they can be protected with the use of wood preservatives and some of the more suited species in Malaysia include Jelutong, Merbau, Ramin and Tualang.

Treated wood can also be used in other parts of buildings such as in the framing. The type and concentration of the chemical treatment will dictate where the treated timber can or should be used. Although using treated wood more extensively in new buildings may increase construction costs, this is a preferred method for dealing with termites.

Termite-resistant building materials are not new, with some dating back to the early 1900s. There are a number of building materials – the latest being wood flooring materials that are gaining popularity among homeowners in Malaysia – that are widely sourced as alternatives to conventional siding and other materials, which are typically vulnerable to termites and other wood-destroying organisms. The manufacturers claim that these products are termite (and decay) resistant and usually carry a long-term, limited warranty, which you must always insist on before using these products. As in the case of treated timber, these products are more expensive than most conventional building materials. However, their long-term benefit in terms of durability and pest-resistance should be considered. It is better to invest slightly more on the construction or renovation cost than to spend a fortune on extensive repairs.

Termites can eat nearly any material containing cellulose. Therefore, using treated timber is no guarantee that termites will not invade your building and damage untreated wooden flooring or other wood, sheetrock or other cellulose-containing items. However, treated timber can help significantly reduce termite invasion. Treated timber is not a substitute for careful maintenance and routine termite inspections of your building.

Apart from the above good practices, here are some additional termite-abatement tips:
– Remove all dead wood, stumps and tree roots from your building.
– Repair all leaking faucets, especially outside faucets, water pipes, and air-conditioning units.
– Grade the ground next to the foundation so the surface water drains away from your building.
– Keep things screened and sealed. Install screens on attic and foundation vents to help prevent termites from entering through them. Also seal cracks and holes in window and door frames with wood putty.
– Inspect utility and service boxes attached to your building to ensure that they are sealed and do not provide shelter or a point of entry for termites.