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Termites
Nature Bulletin No. 289-A   January 13, 1968
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Richard B. Ogilvie, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

TERMITES
Long before the ancestors of the Indians reached this continent, there was a highly organized community life in the colonies of bees, wasps, ants and termites. Of such "social" insects, the termites have the most striking division of labor between their castes of royalty, nobility, soldiers and workers. Although commonly called "white ants", they are not ants at all. They shun the light and open air. They have thick waists and straight antennae or "feelers", whereas the true ants have slender waists and crooked feelers.

There are at least 1800 species. In Africa and other tropical countries, some kinds live in mounds which they build of saliva-soaked particles - - perhaps 20 feet high. In these, the queen is a helpless, enormously swollen egg-laying machine in a "royal cell", accompanied by one or more kings and cared for by the workers which feed her, groom her, and carry away the eggs to a hatchery. She can lay one egg each second, all day and every day, possibly for years. She may be from 4 to 7 inches long and is considered a great delicacy by the African natives.

Some kinds of termites cultivate underground gardens of mushrooms on which they feed. Some keep community "cows" -- small beetles which secrete a fluid they relish. Most termites, however, eat wood and in many kinds the cellulose is partially digested by a wriggling mass of microscopic single-celled animals that packs their intestines.

Of the 56 species of termites in the United States, including four in Illinois, the most common kind is found from the Gulf Coast to Maine and Lake Superior. Although originally a woodland species, this is the one that causes most of the destruction to posts, poles and buildings. It is estimated to do damage amounting to millions of dollars annually. On the other hand, it helps clear away dead and dying trees that, otherwise, would clog the forests and stifle new growth. Further, this kind nests in the ground and its burrowing helps to build and enrich the topsoil.

Unless a nest or an infested timber is broken into, the only time these termites are seen is when the black kings and queens "swarm". In Illinois this usually occurs in late May or June. Each has four long silvery wings of the same length. After a brief night they shed their wings, pair off, and crawl about in search of locations for new colonies, A litter of these loose wings often gives the first hint that a building is being riddled by these creatures.

A new royal pair first produces some white wingless, sightless workers -- of both sexes but sterile -- about one fifth of an inch long. These workers build the growing nest, construct tunnels up to and through the wood upon which they feed, chew up the wood, and feed and care for all the other termites. The royal pair remains together for life, which may be several years. The original queen is about a half inch long, with a greatly enlarged abdomen. Later, a second type and then a third type of tan-colored or creamy males and females appear, which help produce young as the colony grows. These are the "nobility". The fourth caste, the soldiers, are blind wingless sterile individuals of both sexes, creamy white in color, with enlarged brown heads and huge jaws. Since they cannot eat, they are fed by the workers. If a tunnel or passage tube is broken, they plug the opening with their heads and defend it until it is repaired by the workers.

Here we have the original Wacs.


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