Reticulitermes flavipes

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Geographic Range

R. flavipes is found throughout the eastern United States, as faro north as the Mississippi and as far south as Mexico. It has been accidentally introduced to southern France.

Habitat

In the north, colony populations of R. flavipes can reach up to 1-10 million. In addition, these termites may forage on territories up to several thousand square meters (Myles, 1998) Of the termites, only R. flavipes and its cousin, R. tibialis, build "shelter tubes" over foundations or through cracks in timber. They build these with soil particles, saliva, and feces. These tubes require constant moisture and soil contact to sustain the colony (Myles, 1998). The subterranean termites, themselves, must have contact with the soil in order to survive (Krishna, 1989). They may also live in giant termite mounds made of mud and ground mass. It is possible for termites to adjust the level of their nest to optimum moisture and stability levels.

Physical Description

Termites are thought to have diverged early in insect evolution. Ancestors had gradual metamorphosis and the ability to fold their wings over their backs. Their body plan is simple, while their social behavior is advanced. Termites are hemimetabolous, medium sized, polymorphic (having more than one form) social insects. They have biting mouthparts, and antennae comprising 9 to 30 segments. The alate forms (winged primary reproductives) have four almost equal wings and compound eyes; however, the sterile workers and the secondary reproductives have no or greatly reduced compound eyes.

Each member of the R. flavipes colony (workers, soldiers, and kings & queens) looks different. R. flavipes soldiers are slightly bigger than workers and have enlarged and darkened orange head capsules. The workers are creamy-white and are approximately 5-6mm in length (Myles, 1998). As queens reproduce, they become massive creatures of up to 9cm long. The kings are cream colored like the workers, and look like tiny maggots compared to the queen. (Benavides, 1998).

Reproduction

R. flavipes reproduce in swarms. Swarming occurs when a colony reaches a certain size and when temperature and moisture levels are favorable. Usually this occurs on warm days after rainfall. Some researchers speculate that swarming occurs after rainfall because the ground is moist, which make it easier to create a new nesting site (Benavides, 1988). Alates, winged swarmers, fly from their native nest until they hit a "fracture point" in the air. This causes their wings to fall off (Benavides, 1998) This flight is not considered a mating flight because R. flavipes are only sexually attracted to their mates after their wings have broken off (Light, 1922). Once they find a mate, which takes a while because the female is choosy, they walk together to find a suitable nesting site. They mate after they've built a "nuptial chamber" in their new nest (Benavides, 1998). At her peak a queen will lay an egg every 3 seconds, or 30,000 a day. She will lay 10's of millions of eggs during her life (Ramel, 1998). The queen does not store a lifetime supply of sperm, so R. flavipes males remain as consorts to the queen (Benavides, 1998).

Behavior

R. flavipes are eusocial; They live in special colonies or "families" led by a monogamous king and a queen (Benavides, 1998). During the first days the queen lays about five eggs. When these hatch they are first fed by regurgitation by the queen. Soon, however, they are eating surrounding wood and thus enlarging the nest. After 2 years the new nest may still contain as few as 10 workers and one soldier (soldiers take about a year to mature). After a few more years the nest begins to release sexuals. And that paves the ways for a new colony elsewhere (Ramel, 1998).

Workers comprise the bulk of the population -- they feed everyone else in the colony, dig tunnels, locate food and water, and build and repair the nest. Soldiers, with their enlarged mandibles, provide defense against predators.

Food Habits

Termites ingest wood. They cannot, however, digest wood fibers. Instead, "Termites rely on single-celled animals -- protozoa -- that live in their gut to digest the hard components of wood, freeing up the cellulose that nourishes them." (Grady, 1996) They live off of the by-products of this process.

  • Plant Foods
  • roots and tubers
  • wood, bark, or stems

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

"Termites are not all bad. In natural settings, they fulfill a vital function in breaking down the forest debris into raw materials that nourish new trees. Termites get into difficulty because they cannot tell the difference between a fallen tree and wood that is being used by humans" (Knowledge Book Enclyclopedia, 1997). By converting existing biomass to biomass that other animals can consume, termites support a large proportion of temperate vertebrate biodiversity, including many species of amphibians, reptiles, birds, and ground foraging insectivorous mammals. Termites are effective decomposers. Although not in widespread use now, they could be used to degrade damp rotten wood, wood chips, mill waste, structural rubble waste or other wood waste. They are relatively easy to handle and maintain, and could play a beneficial role in reducing landfill space.

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

R. flavipes are by far the most destructive of all termites (Su and Scheffrahn, 1990). They are notorious for their destruction of manmade wood products. Billions of dollars annually go to damage repair and treatment (Su and Scheffrahn, 1990). Homes and buildings can be consumed by R. flavipes as their massive colonies expand.

Other Comments

Researchers should be careful when studying termites. At Auburn University's Extension Hall, entomologists studying termites and other insects found that their building had been plagued for 15 years by an infestation of native Eastern subterranean termites (R. flavipes). (Senticrom Webpage, 1993)

Contributors

Scott Pence (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.

Glossary

Nearctic

living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map

Palearctic

living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.

World Map

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

ectothermic

animals which must use heat acquired from the environment and behavioral adaptations to regulate body temperature

forest

forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.

herbivore

An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.

introduced

referring to animal species that have been transported to and established populations in regions outside of their natural range, usually through human action.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.

savanna

A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.

References

Benavides, J.B. 1998. http://www.netside.net/~jb/images/easterntermite.html

Grady, W. 1996. http://www.cangeo.ca/SO97ter2.htm.

Hickman, C.P. and Roberts, L.S. 1995. Animal Diversity. Wm. C. Brown Publishers, Dubuque.

Knowledge Adventure Website. 1997. http://www.adventure.com/encyclopedia/bug/rfitrmts.html

Krishna, K. 1989. Order Isoptera. In: D.J. Borror, C.A. Triplehorn and N.F. Johnson (Ed.) An Introduction to the Study of Insects. Saunders College Publishing, Philidelphia, pp234-241.

Maeterlinck, M. 1927. The life of the white ant. Dodd, Mead & company, NY.

Myles, T.G. 1998. http://www.utoronto.ca/forest/termite/termite.htm

Ramel, G.J.L. 1998. http://info.ex.ac.uk/~gjlramel/isoptera.html

Ratcliffe, F.N., Gay, F. J., and Greaves, T. 1952. Australian Termites. The Biology, Recognition and Economic Importance of the Common Species. C.S.I.R.O., Melbourne.

Senticrom Colony Elimination System Webpage. 1993. http://www.guarantyexterminating.com/casetwo.htm

Su, N.Y. and Scheffraun, R.H. 1990. Economically Important Termites in the United States and Their Control. Sociobiology, 17, 77-94.

Pictures:

Photo: King and Queen http://www.netside.net/~jb/Index_html/queens.jpg

Picture: "Members of the Termite Colony" http://www.netside.net/~jb/Index_html/termite.gif