Termites, belonging to the Termitoidae family, evolved along the same evolutionary line as cockroaches many millions of years ago during the Triassic or Jurassic period (the exact phylogeny and timing is a bit contested among entomologists), and are in fact in the same order as them, called Blattodea. They are eusocial insects, which means that, like bees and ants, they have a single leader (typically a “queen”) that produces offspring and sterile, non-reproductive individuals who help care for any future young. These queens are able to live for decades, and mature queens are able to produce as many as 40,000 eggs per day, while the younger queens may only produce a few dozen per day. Colonies may have a few hundred to a few million individuals, depending on the species and how long they’ve been established in the area. Their social system and hierarchy are quite interesting, and they are incredibly organized and efficient insects – this works well in the natural world, but means that they can sometimes cause issues in and around our homes.
Where Are Termites Found?
Generally speaking, termites are subterrestrial insects, meaning that they are in the dirt or otherwise hidden from the elements at virtually all times, either directly in the ground or in their mud tubes. They may inhabit their own constructed mounds, as well as trees and manmade structures, particularly those with weaknesses such as a cracked foundation or wood that has been exposed to moisture and other elements. Geographically on a larger scale, there are well over 3,000 known termite species that span every single continent except Antarctica. They belong to three different groups: drywood, dampwood, and subterranean termites. Drywood termites are only found in hardwood forests, dampwood termites are only found in coniferous forests with softer (and damper) wood, and subterranean termites are more generalist species that can live pretty much anywhere that they are able to construct their protective mud tubes. Subterranean termites are the ones that pose the most threat to your home.
What Are Termite Mud Tubes?
Termites are incredibly sensitive to sunlight (their bodies become dehydrated and overheated quickly), so to get around to above-ground food sources they construct thin, elaborate maze-like tubes from mud that can be in walls, on trees and stumps, in large termite mounds, and really anywhere with suitable soil for them to construct the tubes. In fact, termites are one of the only known creatures that can die due to autophototoxicity, so these tubes are essential for protecting them from the sun, dry air, and predators as well. These termite tubes, as well as termite holes (which are simply entrances and exits to and from their tubes), are the primary way to know if these little critters are about.
The tubes are typically constructed from dirt and then combined with the saliva and excrement of the termites to turn it into a muddy consistency so that it’s easier for them to build and shape. The tubes are constructed around their nest, and there are several different kinds – some tubes are created to get to a food source (known as exploratory tubes), some help workers get to different areas more easily (called working tubes), others are built purely for termites flying in and out of the nest (sort of like a termite airport terminal, and called swarm tubes or swarm castles), and still others simply connect them between one surface and another, such as running from a tree branch down to the ground (these are called drop tubes, and often resemble cave stalactites). While problematic for homeowners, these tubes when in natural ecosystems provide a variety of valuable ecosystem benefits, such as aiding in soil aeration, transporting water and nutrients into the soil and to plants, and the termites themselves help to break down organic matter such as leaves and dead wood and thus improving soil fertility. In Kruger National Park in South Africa, it’s estimated that there are over one million active termite mounds, which provide ample food for countless wildlife species and supply the soil with oxygen and nutrients, both of which are much needed in an area of extreme temperatures and elements.
How Long Does it Take Termites to Build Mud Tubes?
Incredibly efficient architects, termites don’t need to rest so long as they can get to food and have moisture, so building rudimentary tube networks can be done in a matter of days, though it may take several weeks to reinforce them so that they are suitable for regular use. Weak tubes are built when first exploring an area, and are sealed off if the termites don’t find the new location to be particularly useful. If however, their journeying efforts lead to valuable resources like food, these simple tubes will be a sort of skeleton framework that will then be reinforced for further use and area surveying. Constructing an entire mound usually takes several years, as does completing an entire nest and tubing network suitable for a whole colony.
Termites are always working, since their tunnels aren’t overly strong and can be easily destroyed by heavy rain or a passing animal. If you notice some termite tubes, chances are that the termites have been there for a while – at least a year or so to establish a nest and begin the process of constructing tubes to expand their colony and exploration efforts. Of course, tubes that are built in already existing structures, such as within concrete cracks or rotting wood, take significantly less time as the termites don’t need to use as much mud. If you have a termite infestation, simply destroying the tubes won’t be enough – that will only slow them down. Rather, you’ll have to find a way to kill the queen, which usually means destroying the nest within the tunnels.