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Termites may look somewhat like ants, but they are only distantly related. Actually, the termite belongs to the same order as the cockroach. However, the termite has social behaviors that are similar to that of the ant or bees. Termites will divide labor into different social groups or “castes” and produce generations that overlap to take care of the young together. They are eusocial insects that live in large colonies that can number up to one million creatures at times. Termite colonies are self-organized by swarm intelligence and they are geared at utilizing food sources in the environment that would be unavailable or inaccessible to one single insect working alone. Termite colonies contain nymphs (or semi-mature insects), workers, reproductive males and females, soldiers, and one or more queens that are capable of laying eggs.
Termite queens are remarkably proficient at laying eggs. They are able to add a set of extra ovaries which can cause their abdomen to look swollen or distended. These extra ovaries increase the queen’s fecundity such that she can produce up to 2,000 eggs every day. The queen’s distended abdomen makes her quite a bit larger in size and makes it difficult for her to move. Worker termites must assist her as a result. Many scientists believe that the queen secretes pheromones that help the colony integrate and work together.
King termites will mate with the queen for life, which can be up to 45 years. Termites and ants differ significantly in terms of their mating behaviors because queen ants will mate with a male only once and then stores the gametes for a lifetime. The male ant will die shortly after mating.
Termites feed on dead plants and tend to prefer taking up residence in wood, soil, animal dung, or leaf litter. Of the 4,000 species of termites that exist, about 10 percent of them are known as very serious and destructive pests. They are famous for causing extensive structural damage to buildings as well as certain crops or plantation forests. At the same time, however, termites perform an important ecological function by recycling dead wood and other dead plant materials.
Worker termites are responsible for foraging and storing food as well as maintaining the nest and the brood. If the nest comes under attack, the worker termites are also responsible for defending the colony. The worker termites are the ones that are primarily responsible for digesting cellulose. Thus, the worker termites are the ones most commonly blamed for the destruction of buildings.
Soldier termites are specialized creatures who are primarily responsible for guarding the colony against attack by ants. The number of soldier termites in any given colony varies depending on the species. They often have such big jaws that they are unable to feed themselves and must be fed by worker termites. Their large head can sometimes be used to block entrance to the narrow termite tunnels. Though the soldiers often lack eyes, they are able to successfully guard the colony by simply blocking the pathway into the tunnel system.