Cooperative Extension Service 
Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences
Hendry County Extension P. O. Box 68 LaBelle, Florida 33975-0068 Phone (863) 674-4092

Hendry County Horticulture News

Termites Can Spell Trouble

Termites often become a topic of concern to homeowners at this time of year. Frequently on warm humid evenings after a typical summer down pour residents may observe a swarm of  "flying ants" which they may confuse with termites.

Flying ants and swarming termites are often difficult to tell apart. Termites have relatively straight antennae while ants have elbowed antennae. Termites have two pair of wings that are of almost equal length. Ants also have two pair of wings but the fore wings are much larger than the hind wings. The abdomen of the termite is broadly joined to the thorax while the abdomen and thorax of the ant are joined by a narrow waist.

Concern about termites is quite valid as the eastern subterranean termite is the most damaging urban pest, costing more than $1 billion annually for control and repair to damaged structures.  Termites feed on wood and serve an important function in nature by converting dead trees into organic matter. Unfortunately, the wood in buildings is equally appetizing to termites and they cause serious damage to residential and commercial buildings.

Subterranean termites are ground inhabiting, social insects that live in colonies. These termites travel through mud tubes to reach food sources above the soil surface. The mature termite colony has three castes: a) reproductives (king and queen), b) soldiers, and c) workers. The colony reaches its maximum size in approximately 4 to 5 years and may include 60,000 to 200,000 workers.

New colonies are formed when winged males and females from a parent colony emerge in flight or swarm. Swarms generally occur during the warmer months of the late spring summer and early fall especially after a rain.

The winged reproductives are dark brown to brownish black and have two pairs of equal size wings that extend well beyond the body. After a flight, the winged males and females return to the ground and shed their wings. The wingless males and females pair off and search for sources of wood and moisture in soil. The royal couple digs a chamber in the soil near wood, enters the chamber and seals the opening. After mating, the queen starts laying eggs. The queen may live up to 25 years and lay more than 60,000 eggs in her lifetime.

Full-grown workers are soft bodied, wingless, blind and creamy white. In early stages, they are fed by the king and queen. Once workers are able to digest wood, they provide food for the entire colony. The workers perform all the labor in the colony such as obtaining food, feeding other caste members and immatures, excavating wood, and constructing tunnels. Workers mature within a year and live from 3 to 5 years.

Soldiers are creamy white, soft bodied, wingless and blind. The head of the soldier is enormously elongated, brownish, hard and equipped with two jaws. Soldiers must be fed by workers because they cannot feed themselves. They are less numerous in the colony than workers and their only function is to defend the colony against invaders. Soldiers mature within a year and live up to 5 years.

Subterranean termites occur throughout the state while drywood termites are more common along coastal areas although they can also be found inland. Termite food consists of cellulose obtained from wood. Protozoa in their digestive tracts convert the cellulose into usable food.

Wood damaged by subterranean termites always has remains of mud tubes attached to wood galleries or tunnels in an irregular pattern. The tunnels may contain broken mud particles with fecal materials. In the case of an active colony, white termites may be found in infested wood.

The presence of flying winged males, females or their shed wings inside the building may indicates an infestation.  The presence of mud or shelter tubes extending from the ground to woodwork or on foundation walls may also indicate infestation. Workers travel periodically via shelter tubes to their nest to regain moisture and perform feeding duties. Each  mud tube is approximately the diameter of a lead pencil and can extend 50 feet or more.

Based on normal feeding activity, it takes several years to cause appreciable damage. There have been some predictions that, under ideal conditions, a termite colony of 60,000 workers may consume a one foot length of 2" x 4" pine in 118 to 157 days.

When termites are found in or near a house, whole house inspections are recommended by at least three, local, reputable pest control firms. There is no need to panic or rush into treating your house. Take time to get complete information and select  a company that you are confident will do a thorough and careful job.

Gene McAvoy is the horticulture agent with the Hendry County Extension Service.  Direct your horticulture questions to PO Box 68, LaBelle, FL 33975,  e-mail - or phone 863-674-4092 or  863-983-1598.  You are also welcome to visit the Hendry County Extension Office at 225 Pratt Blvd., LaBelle.   Office hours are from 8:00 - 5:00.

The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is an Equal Employment Opportunity - Affirmative Action Employer authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function without regard to race, color, sex, age, handicap or national origin.

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