Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: termite from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate(R) Dictionary

(1781) : any of numerous pale-colored soft-bodied social insects (order Isoptera) that live in colonies consisting usu. of winged sexual forms, wingless sterile workers, and soldiers, feed on wood, and include some which are very destructive to wooden structures and trees —called also white ant

Summary Article: Termites
From DK Eyewitness Books: Insect

The biggest and most complex of insect societies are built by termites. The nests of some species, such as the AustralianMacrotermes bellicosus (see here), may house up to five million — many more termites than the entire human population of New Zealand — and are extraordinarily complex buildings, with full air conditioning. Nests usually have a single queen, who lays all the eggs, and a single king, who fertilizes them all. In a really big nest a queen and king may live for 15 years, and for much of her life the queen will lay one egg every three seconds. She looks like a small sausage and lives in a special chamber; she is fed continuously by the numerous workers of her nest. Radiating out from the nest are many covered trails, guarded by large soldier termites, along which the workers bring all the food needed for the colony. Unlike ants, these soldiers and workers are male or female, and they all feed only on plant material. Some species attack young plants, others eat seeds, but most eat rotting wood or cultivate special fungus gardens.

Tree termites

Many termite species build nests in trees; the nests are usually connected to other parts of the same colony, either underground or in other trees. Termites connect the galleries by sticking soil particles together and roofing in their highways, or by tunneling in wood and underground. The foraging galleries and tunnels of the Macrotermes nest shown here cover 2.5 acres (1 hectare).

Air-conditioned city

This towering mound built by Australian termites (Macrotermes bellicosus) is really a giant ventilation chimney through which hot air from the nest can escape. Beneath the tower is a cave about 9 ft (3 m) in diameter housing the nursery galleries, the queen's cell, and the fungus gardens. Below the main cave are cavities 32 ft (10 m) or more deep, from which the termites obtain water. At the top of the main cave is a hole, which the termites can make bigger or smaller by adding or removing soil particles. This varies the speed of warm, moist air passing up and out through the cave and chimneys, and controls the temperature in the nest to within 1 degree.

Inside a termites' nest

The Macrotermes subhyalinus nest differs from that of its relative M. bellicosus, but the principle of keeping a constant temperature within remains the same.

Termite castes

1) Fully grown Macrotermes queen; the head and thorax are dwarfed by the enormous abdomen; 2) worker; 3) soldier; 4) young nymph; 5) short-winged nymph; 6) long-winged nymph; 7) male; 8) young female; 9) egg-laying female (note wings cut off after mating flight).

Mysterious umbrellas

The study of insects often raises more questions than answers. These umbrella nests of African Cubitermes are well known. They are about 18 in (45 cm) high. But what is their function? A nest starts hidden underground. Then one or more columns may suddenly be built, and up to five caps may be added to each one. No queen cell is built by these termites.

© 2007 Dorling Kindersley Limited

Related Articles

Full text Article Termites
Animals: A Visual Encyclopedia

Relatives of the cockroach, some termites build huge mounds that dominate the landscape. They feed on plant matter. Termites are often...

Full text Article termite
Philip's Encyclopedia

Social insect found worldwide in subterranean nests and above-ground mounds. The king and queen are guarded and tended by soldiers, workers and...

Full text Article eusocial
Academic Press Dictionary of Science and Technology

Describing a social group, as of termites or ants, in which all members, even nonreproductive individuals, cooperate in caring for young and...

See more from Credo