Termites belong to the Termitoidae family. This means that they evolved along the same evolutionary line as cockroaches many millions of years ago, during the Triassic or Jurassic period. Entomologists still contest the exact phylogeny and timing, but they are in the same order: Blattodea.
Like bees and ants, termites are eusocial insects. They have a single leader, typically a queen, who produces the offspring and can live for decades. Mature queens can produce as many as 40,000 eggs per day while younger queens may only produce a few dozen per day. Sterile, non-reproductive individuals comprise the rest of the nest and help care for any future young. Colonies may have anywhere from a few hundred to a few million members, depending on the species and how long they’ve been in the area. Termites are incredibly organized, efficient insects with an interesting social system and hierarchy. This works well for them in the natural world, but also means that they can sometimes cause issues in and around our homes.
Where Are Termites Found?
Generally speaking, termites are subterrestrial insects. They are in the soil or otherwise hidden from the elements at virtually all times, either directly in the ground or in their mud tubes. Termites may inhabit mounds they’ve constructed, trees, and manmade structures. They particularly like structures with weaknesses, such as a cracked foundation or wood that has been exposed to moisture or other elements.
On the whole, there are over 3000 termite species. You’ll find them on every single continent except Antarctica. Termites are divided into three different groups: drywood, dampwood, and subterranean.
- Drywood termites live only in hardwood forests.
- Dampwood termites live only in coniferous forests with softer (and damper) wood.
- Subterranean termites are a more general species that can live in pretty much anywhere, as long as they can build their protective mud tubes.
Subterranean termites are the ones that pose the greatest threat to your home.
What Are Termite Mud Tubes?
Termites are incredibly sensitive to sunlight. Their bodies become dehydrated and overheat quickly. So, to get to their aboveground food sources, they construct thin, elaborate maze-like tubes out of mud. You can find these in walls, on trees and stumps, in large termite mounds – really anywhere with soil that allows them to construct their tubes.
In fact, termites are one of the only creatures known to die due to autophototoxicity, so these tubes are essential to protect them from the sun, dry air, and predators. Termite tubes and termite holes (which are simply the entrances and exits to the tubes) are the primary sign that termites might be nearby.
While problematic for homeowners, when in natural ecosystems, these tubes provide a variety of valuable benefits. They help with soil aeration and the transportation of water and nutrients into the soil and to plants. The termites themselves help to break down organic matter, such as leaves and dead wood, thus improving soil fertility.
In Kruger National Park in South Africa, it’s estimated that there are over one million active termite mounds. These provide ample food for countless wildlife species and supply the soil with oxygen and nutrients. All of this is much needed in areas like this, with extreme temperatures and elements.
What Are Mud Tubes Used For?
Termites typically use dirt combined with the saliva and their own excrement to make tubes. This gives the mud a consistency that is easier for them to build with and shape. They build these tubes around their nest and there are several different kinds.
- Exploratory tubes lead to a food source.
- Working tubes help the workers easily get to different areas.
- Swarm tubes are like a termite airport terminal. Also known as swarm castles, these allow termites to fly in and out of the nest.
- Drop tubes connect one surface to another, often resembling the stalactites in caves. For example, you might find a tube running from a tree branch down to the ground.
How Long Does It Take Termites to Build Mud Tubes?
Termites are incredibly efficient architects. They don’t need to rest as long as they can get to food and have moisture. So, they can finish building rudimentary tube networks in a matter of days, though it may take several weeks to reinforce them and make them suitable for regular use.
When first exploring an area, termites use weak tubes, which they seal off if they don’t find the new location to be particularly useful. If their journey leads to valuable resources like food, these simple tubes will be a skeleton framework that they will then reinforce. Once reinforced, the termites will continue to use these tubes, which will also help them survey the area. Constructing an entire mound usually takes several years. The same goes for completing an entire nest and a tubing network that is suitable for a whole colony.
Their tunnels aren’t overly strong and can be easily destroyed by heavy rain or a passing animal. This means that termites are always working. If you notice some termite tubes, chances are that the termites have been there for a while. They’ve probably been around at least a year to have the time to establish a nest and begin building tubes to expand their colony and explore. Of course, the tubes built in already existing structures, such as cracks in concrete or rotting wood, take significantly less time. The termites don’t need to use as much mud for these.
If you have a termite infestation, simply destroying the tubes won’t be enough – that will only slow them down. You’ll have to find a way to kill the queen, instead. This usually means destroying the nest within the tunnels.