Subterranean termites are commonly known as white ants. However, they are distinctly different from ants in their lifestyle and appearance.
In nature, termites have an important role in recycling rotten timber in the forest and returning nutrients to the soil. When they get into our homes they are then declared pests and the damage they can cause to a home is substantial.
Termites are social insects and have a caste structure that differentiates workers from soldiers and reproductives. The reproductives when sexually mature, are winged. In the warmer, more humid months, they swarm and can often be seen in early evening, flying out of bushland to colonise new areas, sometimes your home. The Queen lays eggs and once the nest is established, does nothing else. The Queen of a large, mature colony can lay 1000 - 2000 eggs per day. These eggs develop into workers, soldiers and reproductives.
The workers are the ones who do all the damage. They are wingless, blind and sterile and are responsible for foraging for food, constructing tunnels, building the nest and feeding the other members of the colony. They feed on wood and other cellulose materials, but have a preference for some timbers over others. As they feed they may hollow out timbers and often move from one area to another by constructing small tunnels made from a mud-like combination of faeces and saliva over non-susceptible materials.
They make these tunnels to protect themselves from predators and from the heat, light and lack of humidity in the outside environment. The soldiers are responsible for the protection of the nest and in some species have a pair of mandibles on the head to attack predators. Termites can travel long distances to find food. The nest may be 50 - 100 metres away from where the workers are foraging.
They can work their way into a house from under the floor, up the wall cavity, alongside plumbing penetrations or through construction joints in the concrete.
The first stage of any pest management program is an inspection. This should be carried out by an experienced technician. The inspection will determine the extent of the infestation, if present, identification of the termite species, where the termites are entering the building and also what steps need to be carried out to eradicate any termites present and protect the building from further attacks.
Eradication of any existing termite infestation is important to stop the damage spreading. This is usually done by applying an insecticidal dust to the active workings. The termites then take this back to their nest and as they groom themselves, pass it through the nest. Once this is done, the nest will quickly die off.
If the nest can be located by the technician it may be physically destroyed by breaking it up or an insecticide can be applied to the nest, killing it directly.
Once the nest is eradicated, any termites remaining in infested timbers should die out quickly. However, the home is not protected against re-infestation especially if other nests are located nearby.
The best protection your home can have is a barrier system to impede and discourage the concealed entry of termites into your home. This should be carried out in accordance with Australian Standard AS 3660 series for existing buildings and AS 3660.1 series for buildings under construction. A licensed pest control operator using termiticides approved by the National Registration Authority should install chemical barrier systems. Physical barrier systems should be installed by an accredited installer.
With new homes built on concrete slab, the slab may form part of a termite barrier system if it is constructed to AS 2870.0 However, the termites can still come around the outside edge of the slab. AS 3660.1 specifies the requirements for perimeter protection. The Standard also stresses the necessity for regular, competent inspection of termite barrier systems.
As a homeowner or builder, there are many things that you can do to reduce the risk of termite attack to your home. These include removing all loose construction timbers from around and under the house. Don't stack timber or firewood next to or under the house. Ensure that ventilation is adequate beneath suspended floors as if the soil is dry, termites will not be attracted to this area. Ensure you have a termite inspection carried out by an experienced technician at least every twelve months.
This diagram shows the life cycle of a termite. The egg hatches out into a tiny version of an adult termite. The young insect feeds and grows until it reaches its adult shape. This process is called incomplete metamorphosis.
Winged, fertile male and female termites, shown here, develop in termite colonies during the breeding season. They have harder, darker bodies than other termites, and compound eyes so they can see. These fertile insects fly off and pair up to start new colonies. They shed their wings, but the male does not die as in other types of social insects. He stays with the queen and fertilises her eggs to father all the insects in the colony.
A queen termite is flanked by the king (the large insect below her), workers and young termites. The king and queen live much longer than the workers - for 15 years or even more in some species. The queen may lay 30,000 eggs in a day - that is one every few seconds. The king stays at her side in the royal chamber and fertilizes all the eggs.