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Subterranean Termite - Like Those Found Around North Shore and Boston Metro North Massachusetts

Subterranean Termite

Photo Source:
Subterranean Termite Biology and Behavior - Virginia Tech

About Termites

Subterranean termites in Massachusetts

Getting to Know the Enemy of Many North Shore and Boston Metro North Homeowners

In Massachusetts, subterranean termites, especially eastern subterranean termites of the species Reticulitermes flavipes, are most common. Unlike drywood termites, subterranean termites tunnel in the soil.

Subterranean termites typically construct an underground nest or a series of interconnected underground nests, creating a network through which they can travel hundreds of feet or more to reach food.

Some colonies have been found to contain more than 60,000 workers, occupying multiple nesting sites.

How Subterranean Termite Colonies Get Established

Swarmers – "Meet the parents"

During the spring months homeowners may begin to see winged termites emerge in large numbers inside their home or from the soil outside. These are the subterranean termite swarmers.

Since subterranean termites live under ground, swarmers are frequently the first sign a homeowner notices that termites may be a problem.

The eastern subterranean termite, R. flavipes, usually swarms in the spring during the daylight hours on warm days following a rain. Subterranean termite swarmers are attracted to light so if they emerge indoors they will be seen flying to windowsills and open doors.

Swarming Termite
Swarming Termite vs. Flying Ant
Source: Termites 101, University of Toronto

  • Swarmers are new termite kings and queens that leave their parent colony in order to mate and establish new colonies of their own.

  • Their wings break off soon after landing and the new king and queen start their colony by excavating a small chamber in a crevice or plot of soft soil.

  • Once the chamber is large enough, the king and queen crawl inside, seal the opening and mate.

  • From this point on, they spend the rest of their lives underground.

The queen lays her first batch of 6 to 12 eggs within a few days or weeks of mating. Initially, the king and queen take care of the young termites. As the queen’s egg laying capacity increases, older offspring take care of their younger siblings. The eastern subterranean termite queen becomes an egg-laying machine, often producing more than 500 offspring per year.

The parental king and queen have the longest life span in the colony: they often survive for ten years or more.

Secondary Reproductives

If the king or queen should die, other individuals within the colony, known as secondary reproductives, begin to develop functional reproductive organs in order to take the king or queen’s place.

In mature colonies, secondary reproductives can develop even though there is still a producing queen present, causing the colony to grow much faster than would be possible with a single queen.

Subterranean Termite Workers

Eastern subterranean termite workers:

  • Care for the young

  • Repair the nest

  • Build tunnels

  • Locate food

  • Feed and groom the other castes as well as each other.

Younger workers perform tasks inside the colony like feeding and grooming, while older workers engage in foraging and nest building.

Subterranean Termite Soldiers

Soldiers defend the colony, protecting it against ants and foreign termites.

When mud tubes or galleries (hollow, excavated wood areas) are broken into, soldiers gather to guard against invaders.

Their heads have a pair of very large mandibles, or jaws, that are made to puncture, slice and kill enemies. These large mandibles prevent them from feeding themselves, so soldiers have to rely on workers for their food.

Subterranean Termite Moisture Needs

Subterranean termites are constantly at risk of drying out; which is why they live in the soil.

When termites forage above ground, they maintain their connection to the soil by building mud tubes so workers and soldiers can return periodically to replenish their body moisture.

  • Soil helps protect termites from the drying effects of air and from their predators.

  • Soil has the capacity to hold water for long periods of time, so it keeps the colony moist.

  • Above ground infestations are almost always found in structures that have chronic moisture problems.

  • Moisture problems include flat roofs, where dead leaves and moisture may accumulate, leaky pipes, or unventilated areas, where termite colonies can survive above ground indefinitely.

Subterranean Termite Feeding Habits

Cellulose, especially wood, is the main food source for subterranean termites.

Around homes, termites often feed on wood mulch used in landscaping, but any type of mulch provides termites with moisture and protection from the elements.

  • Termites often first attack wood that is located close to the soil (such as the mud sill around your house).

  • They excavate galleries in the wood and then follow the framework of the house to gain access to upper levels.

  • Termites can also tunnel through inedible materials such as foam insulation, plaster board, etc. as they search for food.

  • Foraging worker termites feed directly on wood or other cellulose, then store it in their gut. They then return to the nest and feed others mouth-to-mouth (called trophallaxis).