10 Fascinating Facts About Termites

Termite soldiers
Termite soldiers are blind, but still capable of defending their nests. Doug Cheeseman/Photolibrary/Getty Images

Termites have been munching away on wood for millions of years. From the African termites that build mounds taller than men to the subterranean species that destroy homes, these social insects are fascinating creatures to study. Learn more about these decomposers.

1. Termites Are Good For Soil

Termites are actually important decomposers. They break down tough plant fibers, recycling dead and decaying trees into new soil. These hungry insects are vital to the health of our forests. As they tunnel, termites also aerate and improve the soil. It just so happens that we build our homes from termite food — wood.

2. Termites Digest Cellulose With the Help of Microorganisms in Their Guts

Termites feed on plants directly or on fungus growing on decaying plant material. In either case, they must be able to digest tough plant fibers, or cellulose. The termite gut is loaded with microorganisms capable of breaking down cellulose. This symbiosis benefits both the termites and the microorganisms living within their insect hosts. The termites house the bacteria and protozoa and harvest the wood. In return, the microorganisms digest the cellulose for the termites.

3. Termites Feed on Each Other's Feces

Termites aren't born with all that bacteria in their gut. Before they can start the hard work of eating trees, termites must obtain a supply of microorganisms for their digestive tracts. They engage in a practice known as trophallaxis, or, in less scientific terms, they eat each other's poop. Termites must also resupply themselves after they molt, so trophallaxis is a big part of life in the termite mound.

4. Termites Lived 130 Million Years Ago and Have Cockroach-Like Ancestors

Termites, cockroaches, and mantids all share a common ancestor in an insect that crawled the Earth about 300 million years ago. Fossil records show the earliest termite specimen dates back to the Cretaceous period. A termite also holds the record for the oldest example of mutualism between organisms. A 100-million-year old termite with a ruptured abdomen was encased in amber, along with the protozoans that lived in its gut.

5. Termite Fathers Help Raise Their Young

You won't find deadbeat dads in the termite mound. Unlike in bee colonies, where males die soon after mating, the termite kings stick around. After their nuptial flight, the termite king stays with his queen, fertilizing her eggs as needed. He also shares parental duties with the queen, helping her feed their young predigested food.

6. Termite Workers and Soldiers Are Almost Always Blind

In almost all termite species, both the workers and soldiers in a given colony are blind. Since these industrious individuals spend their lives in the confines of the dark, damp nest, they have no need to develop functional eyes. Reproductive termites are the only termites that require eyesight, since they must fly to find mates and new nest sites.

7. Termite Soldiers Sound the Alarm

Termite soldiers form the world's tiniest heavy metal mosh pit when danger comes to the nest. To sound the alarm, soldiers bang their heads against the gallery walls to send warning vibrations throughout the colony.

8. Chemical Cues Guide Most Communication in the Termite Colony

Termites use pheromones — special chemical scents—to talk to one another and control each other's behavior. Termites leave scent trails to guide other workers using special glands on their chests. Each colony produces a distinct scent, identified by a chemical on their cuticles. In some species, the queen can even control the growth and role of her young by feeding them her pheromone-laden poop.

9. New Kings and Queens Can Fly

New reproductive termites are winged so they can fly. These young kings and queens, called alates, leave their home colony and fly out in search of a mate, often in large swarms. Each royal pair of king and queen emerges from the swarm together and finds a new place to start a new colony. They break their wings off and settle down in their new home to raise their offspring.

10. Termites Are Well-Groomed

You wouldn't think an insect that spends its time in the dirt would be so fastidious about its grooming, but termites make an effort to stay clean. Termites spend a great deal of time grooming each other. Their good hygiene is important to their survival, as it keeps parasites and harmful bacteria under control within the colony.