Termites, Order Isoptera

Habits and Traits of Termites, Order Isoptera

Eastern subterranean termites.
Eastern subterranean termites. Susan Ellis, Bugwood.org

Homeowners live in fear of termites. These social insects feed on the cellulose in wood and wood by-products, including the structural lumber of buildings. Termites of the order Isoptera first appeared over 250 millions years ago. Termites, cockroaches, and mantids all descended from a common primitive ancestor, a cockroach-like insect that skittered around among the dinosaurs. The name Isoptera means equal wing; primary reproductive adults have two pairs of wings, equal in length.


Isopterans play a major role in decomposition on the planet. Their ability to digest cellulose (plant fibers) relies on a symbiotic relationship with microorganisms in their bodies. Termites acquire these microorganisms from other colony members by eating their fecal matter.

All members of the order Isoptera share certain characteristics. They have pale, elongate bodies, and are sometimes called “white ants.” Reproductive individuals have two pairs of membranous wings, all of equal length. Termites shed their wings after mating. To consume fibrous plant matter, termites have chewing mouthparts. Their antennae are roughly the length of their heads.

As with honeybees, the termite queen controls reproduction. However, in the termite world, the male reproductive or king, stays with the queen and continues to fertilize her eggs for life. Winged reproductives, called alates, swarm on warm days to find their mates.

Successful pairings settle down and begin reproducing. Termites undergo simple metamorphosis.

Sterile termite workers perform the hard labor, building and maintaining the nest and caring for the young and the queen. Soldier termites, as you may imagine, defend the nest. In most species, the soldiers specialized defensive structures are found in the head region, making them true “muscleheads.”

Habitat and Distribution:

Termites live in social colonies, usually in the ground or in wood. Members of the order Isoptera include over 2,000 described species, about 40 of these inhabiting the U.S. Most termite species inhabit the warm, moist environments of the tropics.

Major Families in the Order:

  • Rhinotermitidae – subterranean termites
  • Termopsidae – rottenwood termites
  • Kalotermitidae – dampwood and drywood termites
  • Termitidae – higher termites
  • Hodotermitidae – harvester termites

Isopterans of Interest:

  • Odontotermes latericus, a termite species found in South Africa, forages for grasses and seeds and stores them in the nest.
  • Fungus-growing termites of the subfamily Macrotermitinae grow fungus gardens in their colonies.
  • Mastotermes darwiniensis, an Australian species, is the most primitive termite known and the most destructive bug on that continent.
  • The African termite Macrotermes bellicosus reaches a length of 5 inches at maturity, and is the world’s largest termite.



  • Gordon's Isoptera Page
  • Isoptera, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Australia
  • Insects: Their Natural History and Diversity, by Stephen A. Marshall


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Your Citation
Hadley, Debbie. "Termites, Order Isoptera." ThoughtCo, Mar. 17, 2015, thoughtco.com/termites-order-isoptera-1968590. Hadley, Debbie. (2015, March 17). Termites, Order Isoptera. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/termites-order-isoptera-1968590 Hadley, Debbie. "Termites, Order Isoptera." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/termites-order-isoptera-1968590 (accessed November 25, 2017).