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Termites (Isoptera) – Profile and Information

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Termites are one of the most popular insects in the world. These eusocial insects are classified as epifamily Termitoidae within the cockroach order Blattodea or as at the taxonomic rank of infraorder Isoptera.

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Termites were formally organized in a different order from cockroaches, but phylogenetic studies have recently indicated that these ant looking bugs evolved from cockroaches during the Triassic or Jurassic.

However, the first termites possibly showed up on earth during the Permian or even the Carboniferous.

There are about 3,106 species described currently, with a few hundred yet to be defined.These insects are commonly called “white ants,” but they are not a member of the ants family.

Scientific classification

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Scientific name: Isoptera
  • Phylum: Arthropoda
  • Class: Insecta
  • Cohort: Polyneoptera
  • Superorder: Dictyoptera
  • Order: Blattodea

Behavior

Just like ants and some wasps and bees from the separate order Hymenoptera, termites practice division of labor among castes made up of male and female “workers” and even “soldiers” that are often sterile.

All termite colonies have fertile males known as the “kings” and one or something more fertile females known as “queens.” Termites mostly eat cellulose or dead plant material, generally in the form of leaf litter, wood, soil, or even animal droppings.

Termites are mainly detritivores, particularly those in the subtropical and tropical regions, and they have proven to be of economic value because of their recycling of wood and plant matter.

Termites are among the most popular and successful species of insects on the planet, taking over most landmasses except Antarctica.

Termite colonies vary in size, with some having a few hundred individuals and others having larger societies with several million individuals.

Termite queens are live the longest of all insects currently existing in the world, with some queens living up to three to five decades. Unlike ants, that are known to undergo a complete metamorphosis, each termite doesn’t go through a complete transformation.

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Their cycle proceeds through egg, nymph, and finally adult stages. Termite colonies are considered to be superorganisms because the residents form only a part of a mechanical entity: which is the colony itself.

Significance

Termites have long been a delicacy in the diet of many human cultures and have found a place in many traditional organic medicines.

Several hundred of termite species are economically significant as pests that may cause severe damage to crops, buildings, or plantation forests. Species, such as the West Indian drywood termite (Cryptotermes brevis), are classified as invasive species.

Etymology

The termite infraorder name Isoptera is gotten from the Greek words iso (meaning equal) and ptera (winged), which explains the almost identical size of the hind and fore wings.

“Termite” is a word derived from the Latin and Late Latin word termes ( “white ant,” “woodworm), altered by the influence of Latin terere (“to wear, rub, erode”) from the initial word termes.

The name for termite nests was either terminarium or termitaria. In earlier English, termites were either called “white ants” or “wood ants.” The new term “termites” was first used in 1781.

Distribution and diversity

Termites can be found on every continent of the world, excluding Antarctica. There is a low diversity of termite species in Europe and North America ( with only ten species known in Europe and 50 in North America).

But, termite species are high in South America, with over 400 species. Of the 3,000 termite species that are currently classified, a total of 1,000 are found in Africa, because of the extreme abundance of mounds in certain regions.

In the northern Kruger National Park alone, approximately 1.1 million active termite molds can be accounted for. In Asia, a total of 435 species of termites can be found, and they are mainly distributed in China.

Within the Chinese territory, termite species are confined to mild tropical and subtropical habitats in the south of the Yangtze River.

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All ecological groups of termites in Australia (dry wood, dampwood, subterranean) are indigenous to the country, with more than 360 classified species.

Because of their soft cuticles, termites do not live in cool or cold places. There are three ecological groups of termites: drywood, dampwood, and subterranean.

Dampwood termites can only be found in coniferous forests, while the dry wood termites live in hardwood forests. The subterranean termites, on the other hand, live in widely diverse areas.

One popular species of the dry wood termite is the West Indian drywood termite (also known as Cryptotermes brevis), which is considered an invasive species in Australia.

Reproduction

Termites

Termite alates do not leave the colony until a nuptial flight happens. Alate males and females form pairs and then land in search of a perfect place for a settlement.

There will be no mating between a termite king and queen until they find such a place. When they eventually find such a place, they excavate a chamber large enough for the both of them, close up the entryway and mate.

When the mating is over, the couple never leaves their new home and spend the rest of their lives in there. Nuptial flight time for different species vary. For instance, alates in some species emerge in the day time during summer, while others come out during the winter.

The nuptial flight for some species may also start at dusk when the alates as seen swarming around areas with bright lights. The time when the nuptial flight starts is dependent on environmental conditions, moisture, the time of day, precipitation, and wind speed.

The number of termites that live in a colony also differs, with the larger species having between 100 to 1,000 individuals. However, other termite colonies, especially those with significant individuals, can account for millions of individuals.

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The termite queen only lays between 10 to 20 eggs at a time in the very early periods of the colony. But as the colony grows older, she lays up to 1,000 eggs a day. At maturity, a primary termite queen has a high capacity to lay eggs.

In certain termite species, the mature queen has a largely distended abdomen and can produce as many as 40,000 eggs in a single day. The two mature ovaries can contain 2,000 ovarioles each.

The abdomen of the queen increases her body length to several times more than the way it was before mating and makes it more difficult for her to enjoy free mobility; attendant termite workers take it upon themselves to assist.

The termite king only grows slightly more substantial after the first mating and continues to mate with the termite queen for the rest of his life.

This is a way of life that is very different from what is obtainable in ant colonies, in which an ant queen mates a single time with the male(s) and stores the gametes for the rest of her life, as the male ants, die not long after mating.

If, for some reason, a termite queen is absent, the termite king will produce pheromones that encourage the development of a new termite queen. Since the termite queen and king are monogamous, there is no sperm competition.

Termites not going through a complete metamorphosis on the growth to becoming alates have formed a subcaste in some termite species, serving as potential supplementary reproductives for the future.

These supplementary reproductives will only mature into full reproductives when the death of a termite king or queen is recorded, or when they are separated from the colony that has a king and queen.

Supplementaries are capable of replacing a dead primary reproductive, and a single settlement may also have several supplementary within it. Some queens can also switch from sexual reproduction to asexual reproduction with ease.

They have been found to mate with the king to produce colony workers, and even reproduce their replacements (these replacements are called neotenic queens) parthenogenetically.

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The neotropical termite, Embiratermes neotenous, and many other termite species form colonies that have a primary king accompanied by one primary queen or by as many as 200 neotenic queens that had come from thelytokous parthenogenesis of a founding primary queen.

The type of reproduction likely used maintains heterozygosity in the transfer of the genome from mother to daughter, ultimately avoiding inbreeding depression.

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