Termites 101


Scientific / Latin Name: Isoptera

What do Termites look like?

Termites all belong to the phylum Arthropoda, the class Insecta, and the order Isoptera. There are over 2,000 different species of termites. Although they have distinct characteristics, most look similar.

Size & Length: they typically measure between 1/4 and 1/2 of an inch long.

Body: The pests have soft bodies and straight antennae.

Color: Colors range from white to light brown in color. Worker termites often appear lighter, while swarming termites are darker.
The queens and kings are larger, capable of reaching over one inch long. Flying termites, also called reproductives, have two pairs of prominent wings.

Differences in Species

There are variations in size and color between termite species. For example, Subterranean termite soldiers have yellowish heads, while Drywood termite soldiers have reddish brown heads. Dampwood and Drywood termites tend to be larger than Subterranean termites



Workers and Soldiers live approximately one to two years. Queen termites may survive for over a decade under optimal climate conditions.

Workers are responsible for gathering and feeding the colony members, maintaining the nest, and caring for young. Soldiers protect the termite colony using their large mandibles to fend off predators. Reproductives are the only sexually mature members of the colony, aside from queens and kings.

Mating Flight

The life cycle of the termite begins with a mating flight (called swarming), wherein swarming winged reproductive males and females leave established colonies and procreate. After fertilization, winged termites land and shed their wings, going on to form new colonies. These insects then become the king or queen termites of their newly established colonies.


After the fertilized queen lays her eggs, they hatch into pale white larvae.


Eggs hatch into larvae and molt (shed their exoskeletons) to develop into workers, soldiers, primary reproductives and secondary reproductives.
The termite growth process begins with a process called molting. First, a termite develops a soft exoskeleton under its current, hard exoskeleton. Then, once the termite has reached maturity, its outermost skeleton splits open, and the new exoskeleton enlarges and hardens. This molting process continues throughout a termite’s life cycle based on the colony’s needs.


Over the course of several molts, these larvae grow to assume a role in one of the three termite colony castes: workers, soldiers and reproductive termites, also known as Alates.

Caste System

Termites are social insects and live in colonies comprised of different castes. Although they vary slightly between species, there are typically three castes in a termite colony. These three castes all work to ensure the ultimate survival of the colony:

  • Workers
  • Soldiers
  • Reproductives

Workers – Termite workers are wingless and have hardened mouth-parts. A termite worker’s head is also hardened, but its body is not and it can be subject to drying if it does not remain in a moist environment. Young or recently developed workers usually remain in the colony to do general repair and maintenance work on the galleries, and they are responsible for caring for the queen and eggs. Older workers are primarily responsible for foraging for food away from the main nest. About 10 percent of the workers in a termite colony are away from the nest foraging for food.

Soldiers – Soldier termites have distinctively shaped heads and are typically bigger than workers. Their protruding mandibles help them protect their colonies. Soldiers have elongated bodies and are pale red, light brown, or white. Within these termite castes, the soldier is responsible for defending the nest. Considering soldiers’ large heads and mandibles, they are well equipped to battle insects (typically ants) that invade the colony. An alarm pheromone can signal such an invasion and bring soldiers to the site of the attack. Another responsibility for soldiers is to use their over-sized and hardened heads to plug holes in the mud tubes that extend from the soil to a food source above ground. These breaches in the tube walls will quickly be patched by workers. Soldier termites rely on worker termites to feed them. Soldiers cannot feed themselves because their large mandibles (jaws) prevent them from biting wood or other cellulose materials. These pests communicate danger to the colony by banging their heads against tunnel walls and creating vibrations.

Reproductive Termites – The colony’s king and queen are known as primary reproductives, as they are the original founders of the colony. Reproductives play a particularly important role in creating new termite colonies and tending to the young (larvae). Whether through swarming or budding, reproductives are the reason new colonies of termites move into your home and neighborhood.

Common Termites in the U.A.E.

Subterranean Termites

Identification factors for subterranean termites are:

Alates (Swarmers): Dark-brown to black in color, about ¼ to ½ inch long with two pairs of wings that are very close to being equal in length.

Soldiers: No wings, large mandibles (jaws), termite colony defenders, are creamy-white in color, but their head is often brownish in color.

Appearance of damaged wood: Since subterranean termites build their nests underground, damaged wood usually has an accumulation of soil or mud within the tunnels of the wood they are eating. Since subterranean termites only eat the softwood, damaged wood appears to be layered, the result of the workers not eating the hardwood portion. In addition, subterranean termites feed “with the grain” rather than across the grain, as do drywood termites.

Location of the nest: As their group name suggests, the nest is usually found below ground. Nests may be found above ground, but only when sufficient moisture conditions are available to support the above-ground nest and the colony is old and well established.

Drywood Termites

Identification factors for subterranean termites are:

Alates (Swarmers): They have two sets of wings. The front set of wings has a pattern of three or more heavy, well-pigmented veins in the outer part of that front wing. Also, swarmers shed their wings very quickly after swarming, so most all dead swarmer bodies do not have attached wings. Swarmers can be up to 12 mm long.

Soldiers: Drywood termite soldiers have large mandibles (mouth-parts) with teeth and their Pronotum is as wide, or wider, than the head. Also, most drywood termite soldiers and workers are larger than the soldiers and workers in subterranean termite colonies.

Appearance of damaged wood: piles of sawdust like pellets are a distinct sign of infestation; not as widespread as subterranean termite; colonies may contain up to 2,700 members.

Location of the nest: These colonies live entirely inside the wood and do not make contact with the soil. Unlike subterranean termite colonies, drywood termite colonies do not have a traditional group of worker termites. Instead, immature termites complete the tasks that are usually assigned to the worker termites.