Arthropods 13

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Southern California Arthropods (Mostly) #13: Termites (Order Isoptera)
© W.P. Armstrong 15 April 2009
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Termites are social insects with a well-developed caste system consisting of the fertile queen (original female of royal pair), king (original male of royal pair), workers (nymphs), and soldiers (modified workers with massive heads and enlarged mandibles). The name "Isoptera" is derived from "iso" (equal) and "ptera" (wing). Insects of this order have winged sexual adults with four membranous wings of the same approximate length. The immature nymphs feed on wood, much to the chagrin of home owners with wood frame houses. Termite guts contain flagellated protists that contain wood-digesting bacteria, which in turn contain cellulose-digesting enzymes. Termites are often confused with ants; however, the abdomen of termites is broadly joined to the thorax, whereas in ants it is constricted at the base and connected to the thorax by a narrow petiole. The antennae of termites are moniliform with segments resembling a minute string of beads. Antennae of ants are elbowed with a distinct bend. Ants and termites can readily be distinguished, even in 25 million-year-old amber from the Dominican Republic. Although they both have well-developed caste systems, termite workers and soldiers consist of individuals of both sexes, with all nymphs serving as workers. With the exception of haploid males (drones) in ants, the individuals of these castes in ant colonies are all females.

There are three major families of termites in southern California, including the subterranean termites (Rhinotermitidae), drywood termites (Kalotermitidae) and rottenwood termites (Hodotermitidae). Of these three families, the Hodotermitidae have the largest termites. In fact, the Pacific dampwood termite (Zootermopsis angusticollis) has soldiers up to 20 mm in length. These termites are common in rotten tree stumps and logs. Along with decay fungi they are quite beneficial in breaking down dead wood and returning it to the soil. Subterranean and drywood termites have much smaller bodies. In addition, subterranean termites have black heads.

Rottenwood termites: A. Soldier. B. Worker (nymph). C. Winged adult.
Note the massive head and enormous mandibles (jaws) of the soldier.

The massive head and mandibles of this rottenwood soldier are used to defend the colony against invading ants.

Winged adults of three families of southern California termites: A. Rottenwood termites (Hodotermitidae); B. Drywood termites (Kalotermitidae); C. Subterranean termites (Rhinotermitidae). The winged adults of subterranean termites can be distinguished from the other two families by their black heads. These specimens came from the author's 1964 college entomology collection.

Winged adults of three representative families of southern California termites: A. Rottenwood termites (Hodotermitidae); B. Drywood termites (Kalotermitidae); C. Subterranean termites (Rhinotermitidae). The winged adults of subterranean termites (C) can be distinguished from the other two families by their black heads. These specimens came from the author's 1964 college entomology collection.

References:

  1. Evans, A.V. 2007. Field Guide to Insects and Spiders of North America. Sterling Publishing Co., Inc. New York, New York.

  2. Hogue, C.L. 1993. Insects of the Los Angeles Basin. Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

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