A summarized version of the termite life cycle is shown above. Basically, the queen lays eggs, which in turn hatch into larvae (immature young). These larvae either grow to become nymph, soldier or worker termites. The soldier and worker stages are terminal stages, meaning they cannot grow any further, whereas the nymphs will grow to become reproductive termites, which grow wings, later shedding them. Later, they may grow to become the heads of a colony – the kings and queens. The entire life cycle will be discussed in further detail below.
Breakdown of termite life cycle
The beginning of a termite’s life is marked when the queen hatches eggs. Depending on the size of the colony, the queen can hatch between a few hundred and few thousand eggs per day. The egg stage of the terllmite life cycle lasts for about 30 days.
After thirty days, the eggs hatch into larvae, which are immature young termites. Unable to feed themselves, they rely on the king to feed them through his salivary glands. Mature worker ants also help to feed the larvae. The chemical messages from the king and queen determine whether these larvae are to develop into workers, soldiers or nymphs. These larvae will mold several times, before fully developing to assume their different roles.
After the king and queen, workers are arguably the most important parts of a colony. They are responsible for a wide variety of roles, including foraging, food storage, feeding the queen and defense (in certain species, although soldiers are the main ones responsible for colony defense). They are mainly the ones who digest cellulose. Most, if not all of the termites that are seen eating wood are worker termites.
Matured worker termites are also responsible for feeding termite larvae. Workers are sterile, just as soldiers are, meaning that they are incapable of reproducing. The worker stage is terminal, meaning once termites reach the worker stage, they cannot grow any further. The lifespan of a worker termite is 1 to 2 years.
As the name implies, soldier termites are responsible for defending the colony against invaders. A very common invader are the ants, so much so that ants and termites are considered “worst enemies”, as fighting between both of them takes place very often.
The physical features of the soldier termite are designed specifically for their role of colony defense. Their red heads are a warning for other insects to stay away. Their oversized “jaws” (actually mandibles), are used for trapping their victims. Once the victim is trapped, the soldier termites emit a thick, gluey substance to immobilize their victims.
Soldier termites cannot eat. Thus, they require worker termites to provide them with food. Like worker termites, soldier termites are sterile. This stage is also terminal, and soldier termites generally live for 1 to 2 years.
Another caste which larvae can develop into are nymphs. Nymphs are an intermediate stage. Nymphs are either destined to be one of the two types of reproductive termites: supplemental reproductive termites, which can be said to be the “backup kings and queens”, and winged reproductives, also known as alates. While waiting to grow up, nymphs help to take care of the larvae, as well as the kings and queens.
Some nymphs will grow to become supplemental reproductives. In a less mature colony, there will be more supplemental reproductives than alates. Supplemental reproductives are known as the “backup kings and queens” because their function is to increase the growth rate of the colony. They are located in a different part of the nest than other termites.
Winged reproductives (alates)
Alates, commonly known as winged reproductives, are responsible for forming new colonies. In a mature colony, thousands of nymphs are destined to become alates. They grow large and fragile wings and are able to feed themseleves, until swarming season comes.
When swarming season comes, alates become “swarming alates”. This is the stage whereby matured alates leave their home colonies in large numbers. This is called “swarming”. They fly from their home colonies, towards any light source, and fall to the ground.
Only 1% of the alates that fly out into the open are lucky enough to survive this process. Those that do will shed their wings, pair off, and start to mate with other dealates.
If a pair of dealates come together, and the conditions are right for them, they may form a new colony and become king and queen. The queen termite is the most important termite in the life cycle. The queen is responsible for laying eggs and hence starting the entire cycle. She is unable to feed herself, thus, the workers feed the queen. The queen can live up to 25 years. The queen, along with the queen, secret pheromones, a chemical that determines how many of their offspring develop into what castes.
The king is responsible for mating with the queen for her life. The male royalty of the colony, together with the queen, he secretes chemicals known as pheromones to determine how many of their offspring become nymphs, workers or soldiers. The king also lives up to 25 years.