Pest Information - Subterranean Formosan Termites

Formosan termites were introduced to Hawaii about 100 years ago and are now found state wide. These termites cause millions of dollars in damage to structures in Hawaii every year. Careful identification helps plan a strategy of treatment. Learn about their Appearance, Habitat, Diet, Health Risks, and Reproduction.

Formosan Termite

Subterranean Formosan Termites

Scientific Name

Coptotermes formosanus

Appearance

In general the termite does not have the narrow waist and segmented body of the ant. Termites have two pair of equal length wings while ants have two pair of unequal length wings. When swarming, Subterranean Formosan termites (alates) appear reddish brown and are about 3/8th of an inch (10mm) in length. Once inside wood termites lose their wings and become a pale white color. Occasionally soldiers may be seen. Formosan ground termite soldiers, in contrast to swarmers, are wingless and smaller at about 1/4th of an inch in length, have an orange head, white body, and distinct sickle shaped jaws. This species of ground termites are seldom seen in the open during the day for a couple of reasons: first they swarm at night (breeding flight) and second they have soft bodies and so protect their movements by building mud tubes across open spaces from the colony (in the ground) to pieces of tasty wood.

Habitat

Subterranean Formosan termites, as their name implies, usually build colonies underground, although colonies have been found in wooden boats and even high rise condominiums. The number of termites in a Formosan colony may number in the millions, far more than most other termite species. Subterranean Formosan termites live in both wet and dry climates, exclusively below latitude 35 degrees North because their eggs will not hatch below 68°F (20° C). These termites build mud tubes to connect the colony to food sources such as wood structures or trees.  For example, mud tubes may be seen along the outer edge of a building slab and should not be confused for ant mounds. They are distinguished by the dry brittle nature of the tubes and lack of visible insect activity. Termites hide within mud tubes; ants crawl all over their mounds.

Diet

Termites feed on anything containing the plant material cellulose. Formosan worker termites forage for wood about 300 feet around the colony, just under the surface of the ground. These termites have been known to chew through plaster, foam insulation, asphalt, thin lead and copper sheeting, and even plastics to reach tasty wood.  Soft woods are very attractive to Formosan termites; some nutritionally superior wood treats include pecan, American ash, and red gum trees. A colony of Subterranean Formosan termites may collectively eat 13 ounces of wood per day causing extensive structural damage in about three months.

Health Risks

There are no known health risks directly associated with termites, however the massive damage these pests can inflict on a building could cause load bearing walls or beams to become structurally unsafe.

Life Cycle

Once a colony of Subterranean Formosan termites grows large enough, about 70,000 alates swarm at night in a breeding flight.  A female and a male will pair up and find a crevice in a damp piece of wood where they hollow out a chamber. After mating the female lays around 20 eggs. About three to five weeks later the eggs hatch and the queen and king feed the emerging larvae until their third instar or development stage. About two months later the queen lays a second round of eggs which are nursed by the termites from the first batch. A full sized colony with millions of termites may take from three to five years to develop. Termites divide labor along caste lines. Workers build the colony and search for food. Soldiers defend the colony from predators such as ants. The king breeds with the queen who lays eggs. After about three to five years, the colony is large enough to produce swarming alates.

Interesting Facts

Some species of non-pest termites farm fungi because they do not have the microbes in their digestive systems to turn wood into food. The fungi do the work in the place of the missing microbes and as a result, termites hold the Guinness Book of World Records top spot for farming the world’s largest mushroom which was measured to be three feet wide. Furthermore this termite farmed mushroom (Termitomyces) is edible and best served grilled!