Eastern Subterranean Termites

Facts, Identification & Control

Scientific Name

Reticulitermes flavipes

Appearance / Identification

Reticulitermes flavipes, or eastern subterranean termites, are social insects that organize into very functional colony structures. Each colony member or caste performs very specific and specialized functions for the overall success of the colony. Eastern subterranean termite (EST) colonies are made up of three castes – workers, soldiers and reproductives.

Workers

picture of eastern subterranean termite worker

The workers are the cream-colored caste that consumes cellulose and feeds the colony.

Soldiers

picture of eastern subterranean termite soldier

The soldiers are about ¼ inch-long protectors of the colony. Soldiers are equipped with large jaws that they use to combat colony intruders.

Alates

picture of eastern subterranean termite alate

The alates are winged termites or “swarmers” that leave the colony and establish new colonies. The male and female alates leave the colony in the spring; mate after leaving the colony; construct a new colony; and then become the primary king and queen of this new colony. Fortunately, extremely few alates actually succeed in establishing new colonies.

Queens

The reproductive caste is made up of the primary queens and males (kings) that stay within the colony for life. The secondary reproductives are important during times of colony stress or conditions unfavorable to the success of the colony.

Alate queens and kings are black or dark brown, about 3/8 to a half inch long and have two pairs of wings that are lost after a termite swarm. Generally, the appearance of swarmers or their shed wings is the first sign of a problem with eastern subterranean termites.

Colonies & Reproduction

One colony of ESTs may contain anywhere from 60,000 to nearly a million individuals. Unlike some other insect species, reproductive male termites mate throughout their lives, and males do not die immediately after mating. Eastern subterranean reproductive termites do shed their wings after mating swarms, at which time they go on to found new colonies.

Behavior, Diet, Habits

Termites are the most destructive insect pests in the U.S., causing damage well into the billions of dollars annually. ESTs consume wood, but also will feed on and damage almost anything that contains cellulose such as pages of books and other papers. EST workers are not able to digest cellulose on their own and depend on microorganisms that reside in the worker termite’s gut to breakdown the cellulose into nutrients that workers feed to the other castes within the colony. ESTs establish their colonies underground, and the workers then use networks of tunnels located both above and below ground to search for cellulose.

Termite workers are constantly foraging for food and when a food source is located the workers communicate the food source location by depositing complex odors called pheromones along trails.

Above ground foraging also takes place, and the typical termite mud tube must be constructed when workers forage above ground. The mud tube’s purpose is to protect the workers as they explore for new sources of food or travel back and forth with the food (cellulose) they bring back to nourish the colony members.

More Facts

There are numerous termite species native to the United States. Eastern subterranean termites (Reticulitermes flavipes) are a subterranean species found primarily in the South and on the East Coast. These insects can have a large economic impact on homeowners, due to their dense distribution.

Eastern subterranean termites are social insects, using their collective might to accomplish large-scale tasks. Established infestations can range from 5,000 to millions of insects and are divided into three castes in any given colony. Workers are responsible for food and maintenance, while soldiers use their oversized mandibles to protect their colonies. Reproductive termites, known as kings and queens, ensure that colonies grow in population.

Control

Eastern subterranean termite control is labor intensive and exacting. Always contact your pest management professional to identify whether you have a termite problem and, if so, what termite species has invaded your property. If you need termite control for your home, your pest management professional will recommend the products, methods and techniques that will be most effective and efficient. In addition, your pest management professional will suggest that your termite control program also include an annual termite inspection. Finally, a good inspector will help you locate and become familiar with the following common signs indicating a termite problem:

  • Finding shed swarmer wings or winged swarmers around windows, patio doors or other sources of light.
  • The presence of mud tubes.
  • Wood material in the home that appears to be soft, easily penetrated, rippled, peeling or bubbled.

Your termite inspection will provide you some proactive tips and suggestions that will help prevent termite problems. Some of these proactive recommendations include:

Remove termite food sources.

  • Do not let any wood lay on the ground around your home.
  • Keep firewood piles off the ground and don’t allow any ground contact. Inspect firewood to ensure that termites have not constructed exploratory mud tubes and found your firewood.
  • Do not bury any wooden material on the property. If possible, replace any construction wood that contacts the soil (deck and fence posts, etc.) with materials that are non-cellulose or pressure treated.
  • If you are building a new home, periodically inspect the work to make sure the construction workers are not burying wood scraps anywhere on your property.
  • If a tree blows down, grind down the stump and roots; never simply let a stump remain in place.
  • If a shrub dies, dig it out and remove all the woody parts and roots of the dead shrub.
  • Never allow any wooden siding to contact the soil surface.

Since eastern subterranean termites need moisture to survive and flourish:

  • Ensure there are no plumbing leaks, water from air conditioner condensation, leaking gutters and that downspouts direct water away from the house, not close to the foundation.
  • Provide ventilation and drainage in the crawl spaces under the house.
  • Maintain at least six inches or more of space between siding and the ground. Do not put mulch on the ground next to the foundation. If you want to use mulch around the home, be sure to provide a “no mulch” zone that is at least one to two feet wide since mulch allows the soil to hold more moisture.

If you notice a crack in the foundation, repair with concrete or heavy duty, durable caulking materials.

Replace severely damaged wood with sound construction materials. Use pressure-treated wood at surfaces where wood must be in contact with soil.

Trim and thin out plants. Do not let landscaping plants touch the siding or get too thick around the foundation. Not only does this make a friendly environment for termites, it also makes it more difficult to inspect for signs of a termite problem.