Termite, term referring to nearly 2000 species of mostly tropical and subtropical insects generally placed in order Isoptera, but closely related to cockroaches (Dictuoptera). Often called "white ants," termites are, nevertheless, unrelated to true ants.

Range

In Canada, 3 native species are known (from BC and western Alberta); another dubiously native species occurs in southern Ontario. The latter and other introduced species may establish themselves indoors.

The earliest known termite was discovered recently in 120-million-year-old deposits in England; previously the 100-million-year-old Cretatermes carpenteri from Labrador held this distinction. Living species resemble these forms.

Structure

Termites, typically, are pale and about 5-15 mm long; swollen, egg-laying queens may be much larger. They have short legs and antennae. Reproductive forms have 4 long wings, of similar shape, shed after the nuptial flight. Eyes are reduced or absent. Like other fully social insects, colony members are divisible into castes: reproductive males and females, and sterile workers and soldiers. Unlike ants, wasps and bees, sterile termites are of either sex, not females alone, and the reproductive female (queen) retains the services of the king.

Colonies

Complexity of social organization and size of colonies vary among species. Termites are sophisticated architects, having invented effective air conditioning and concrete. Sanitation is perfect; the dead are consumed and excrement recycled for building materials. Some exotic species are excellent fungus gardeners. Their habitations are often shared by other animals, mostly arthropods (especially beetles).

Diet

Termites may be divided into categories: dry-wood termites living in seasoned wood; damp-wood termites living in decaying wood in contact with the ground; mound-building termites, plant-feeders that construct conspicuous "termitaria" on the ground or on trees but are most active beneath soil surface; and "subterranean" termites, humus-feeders, nesting entirely underground. Termites feed on cellulose (especially in wood or vegetable fibre products) digested by intestinal micro-organisms - usually bacteria, but protozoa in at least 2 species.

Termites frequently destroy structural and other timber and may damage crops. Canadian species may do significant structural damage.