Termites

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Australian termite species

There are around 360 species of termites in Australia, but only a small number cause economic damage to crops, timber and other cellulose-based products. The majority of termites are of great benefit to ecosystems through recycling dead and rotten timber and other plant matter and as a source of food to many animals. 

Termites have different feeding habits and preferences and differing potential for causing damage. So it is important to identify the species of termite in an infestation to provide the most effective long-term control of the pests. 

This page describes the three types of termite, subterranean, drywood and dampwood, and the most common termite species that are found in infestations around Australia.

Types of termite

Termites are classified into three ecological categories according to their nesting and feeding habits: subterranean, drywood and dampwood.

Subterranean termites

Subterranean termites are the most common type of termite that infests timber in buildings and are one of the most destructive pests worldwide. Outdoors they mainly infest dead wood in contact with the soil, such as fallen trees, stumps and fallen branches. They prefer wood that has some degree of rot already, which makes it easier for them to digest it, although they can digest sound wood.

Subterranean termites need to be near a source of moisture to survive, making their nests in or near the ground where they can easily acquire moisture from the soil. They tunnel through soil to access moist soil or timber and in dry seasons they tunnel down deeper into the soil to reach moisture.

Termite shelter tubes

The termites use soil as a material to construct shelter tubes and nests, which are composed of soil, wood, faeces and saliva. Some species build ‘carton’ nests above ground and construct shelter tubes (also called mud tubes) to connect the nest to the soil.

Subterranean termite shelter tubes on a wooden beam.

Subterranean termites build four types of shelter tube: 

  • Exploratory tubes to search for food or to migrate 
  • Working tubes to provide a sheltered route to and from a source of food 
  • Drop tubes to get from a source of wood back to the ground 
  • Swarm tubes for the winged termites to swarm out of when the season and weather are suitable 

Foraging is dependent on the weather, with little activity in dry conditions or winter and high activity in summer after rainfall. In tropical areas they can forage all year round, with peaks during warmer, wetter conditions.

Drywood termites

Drywood termites live in small colonies, usually less than 1000 individuals, wholly inside pieces of timber. There may be several small colonies inside a single piece of timber or object such as a piece of furniture. They can feed across annual rings so the galleries do not follow the grain of timber as is typical subterranean termites, but they tend to avoid heartwood. They infest both softwood and hardwood timber. 

They obtain all their moisture from the wood and do not need other water sources or contact with the ground. They do, however, need high humidity to survive. 

Colonies can grow for years undetected until the timber breaks or the termites swarm. The winged alates, which are the only casts that leave the nest, may not be produced for years in a new colony until the population reaches a critical point. Then they leave the nest to pair up and find a new site to mate and start a new colony, usually not far from the parent colony.

Dampwood termites

Dampwood termites normally infest decayed wood that remains moist due to contact with the soil or, for example, through a water leak in a building. They are most likely to infest timber that is outside, such as a tree, stump or logs in contact with the soil.

Dampwood termites live wholly inside the timber that they feed on and create large open galleries. As with drywood termites, they may infest timber for years before they are discovered, which is most likely when the alates swarm from a mature colony. Swarming may occur over several months, with different species swarming at different times. Colonies are generally small.

If they are found in a building they are an indication of a moisture problem. They are generally minor pests and can be controlled in buildings by removing the source of moisture. In live trees they tend to feed on dead and rotting wood.

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Australian pest termite species

The main pest termites in Australia are: 

Termite species can be difficult to identify, even for the experts. Identification is usually based on the soldiers, which is the termite caste that has the most easily distinguishable features. 

Of the pest species listed above, it is the Coptotermes species that are “public enemy number 1” in Australia.

Coptotermes acinaciformis

Subterranean termite 

Family: Rhinotermitidae, subfamily Coptotermitidae 

Type: subterranean, native

Coptotermes acinaciformis soldier.

Description

The head of the soldier is rectangular pear-shaped and yellow with darker, smooth thin mandibles. Body is up to 7 mm long. It is easily confused with two other native Coptotermes species, C. frenchi and C. lacteus (Victoria Museum

The soldiers produce a white sticky liquid from an opening (fontanelle) on the front of head when defending the nest from attack. 

Coptotermes species generally do not build mounds, except in Queensland and other tropical areas of Australia. They mostly nests in trees, stumps, poles, buried timber around houses, spaces under buildings and in walls. Favoured trees for nesting are English oaks, various eucalypts and peppercorns. The colony is mostly found in the root crown or the lower part of the trunk. It can build underground tunnels 50m long from the nest to find new timber for food.

Economic significance

Coptotermes acinaciformis is the most destructive termite species in Australia overall, although Mastotermes darwiniensis is the more destructive locally across its limited range in tropical northern Australia. C. acinaciformis attacks all timber structures and damages forest and ornamental trees as well as fruit trees.

Soil contact is not essential for C. acinaciformis, provided that it has a steady moisture supply and security in its habitat. C. acinaciformis colonies have been found on the top of multistorey buildings where there is a constant water supply, but no ground contact. Large colonies have also been found inside wooden barges that do not have contact with the ground, moisture being supplied through the timber from the fresh or saltwater they are floating in. 

This species has caused fire by shorting out electrical wiring. In a Sydney hospital the wiring was so severely damaged it caused an electrical blackout to a large and critical part of the hospital.

Distribution

Map: Distribution of Coptotermes acinaciformis.

Map: Distribution of Coptotermes acinaciformis. Source: Australian Faunal Directory. Creative Commons licence: CC BY 3.0 AU

Coptotermes acinaciformis is present over the entire Australian mainland, except in a few high-rainfall areas and along some of the eastern coastline, from Jervis Bay in New South Wales to Cape Otway in Victoria.

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Coptotermes frenchi, C. lacteus

Family: Rhinotermitidae 

Type: subterranean, native

Coptotermes frenchi soldier

Description

C. frenchi and C. lacteus are similar species. Soldiers are 4.0-5.0mm long, which is smaller than C. acinaciformis, and their head is pear shaped. They nest in the ground, in mounds or in tree trunks and attack sound timber in buildings. They are a major economic pest, but cause less damage than C. acinaciformis.

Distribution

Coptotermes frenchi distribution in Australia
Source: Australian faunal directory CC BY 3.0 AU

Coptotermes frenchi is present in these Australian states and areas: 

  • New South Wales: Murray-Darling basin, SE coastal 
  • Queensland: Murray-Darling basin, NE coastal 
  • South Australia: Murray-Darling basin, S Gulfs, SE coastal, W plateau 
  • Victoria: Murray-Darling basin, SE coastal 
  • Western Australia: NW coastal, SW coastal, W. plateau

Mastotermes darwiniensis

Giant northern termite, Darwin termite 

Family: Mastotermitidae 

Type: subterranean, native

A sodier of the giant northern termite, Mastotermes darwiniensis

Description

Soldiers are 11-13 mm long, workers 10-11.5mm and alates up to 35mm with 50mm wings. They have rounded yellow to reddish brown heads and short black mandibles.

Mastotermes darwiniensis is regarded as the most primitive termite species, having several cockroach-like characteristics that other termites do not have, such as laying its eggs in egg cases in bunches and having an ‘anal’ lobe at the base of the hind wings of the alates (as shown in the image below).

 An alate of Mastotermes darwiniensis showing the ‘anal’ lobe at the base of the wing.

Source: Simon Hinkley & Ken Walker, Museum Victoria. CC BY 3.0 AU

Mastotermes darwiniensis nests are in the ground and it does not build mounds. Colonies are not large in its natural areas, but they can have up to several million termites when food supplies are abundant. This is usually when human activity provides them with large resources of food and moisture. Their foraging tunnels can be over 100m long. It does not occur in tropical rainforest areas.

Mastotermes darwiniensis is the most destructive termite in Australia in terms of the products that it can damage in buildings and agriculture and the rapidity and extent of damage. Products attacked include any type of timber structure, poles, railway sleepers, plant products including woven fibres, paper, sugar, flour, a range of tree species and agricultural crops, bone, leather, dung, plastic electrical cable insulation, lead piping, bitumen, concrete.

Distribution

Distribution of Mastotermes darwiniensis.

Source: Australian Faunal Directory. Creative Commons licence: CC BY 3.0 AU

Distribution in Australian states: 

  • Northern Territory: N Gulf, N coastal, W plateau 
  • Queensland: Lake Eyre basin, N Gulf, NE coastal 
  • Western Australia: N coastal, NW coastal
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Cryptotermes genus

Family: Kalotermitidae 

Type: drywood termites

Description

There is a major pest in this genus, Cryptotermes brevis, which is an introduced invasive species and is described separately, and a group of minor termite pest species which are described below:

  • C. cynocephalus, Indo-Malaysian drywood termite: The smallest Cryptotermes species in Australia. It forms small colonies and is of minor economic importance. Attacks sawn timber, logs and deadwood of standing trees. Soldier body length 2.5 – 3.7mm, head width rarely exceeding 1mm.
  • C. domesticus: Occurs in northern Australia. Forms small colonies and is a minor pest. Has been found in structural timber, flooring, doors, furniture in houses, packing cases, logs. Soldier body length 3.25-5.90mm.  
  • C. dudleyi: PaDIL says it is not established on mainland Australia but is frequently found infesting wooden crates on ships entering N. Australia. 
  • C. primus: Found in north Queensland and coastal areas of New South Wales. Forms small colonies and is a minor pest of buildings. PaDIL reports it attacks timbers in buildings, such as beams, poles, floorboards, skirtings, etc. Soldier body length 4-6.5 mm.

Distribution

Map showing distribution of Cryptotermes species

Source: Australian Faunal Directory CC BY 3.0 AU

States

  • New South Wales: Murray-Darling basin, SE coastal 
  • Northern Territory: Lake Eyre basin, N Gulf, N coastal, W plateau 
  • Queensland: Murray-Darling basin, N Gulf, NE coastal 
  • South Australia: Lake Eyre basin, Murray-Darling basin, S Gulfs 
  • Victoria: Murray-Darling basin, SE coastal 
  • Western Australia: N coastal, SW coastal

Cryptotermes brevis

West Indian drywood termite 

Family: Kalotermitidae 

Type: drywood, introduced

West Indian drywood termite soldier

Description

The West Indian drywood termite is native to northern South America and one of the most serious termite pests worldwide. As a drywood termite it doesn’t need freely available moisture to survive. It can infest small, portable pieces of timber, which makes it easy to spread. Colonies are small at up to 1000 individuals, but a large number of colonies can co-exist near each other in the same building or piece of timber. The soldier is 4.2-6mm long and has a ‘rugose’ (wrinkled) head.

It is an invasive species in Australia, having the ability to quickly displace local termite species, and is subject to control under the Australian Biosecurity Act 2014 to prevent its spread. This allows authorised officers to inspect suspected timber, including entering property, remove suspected items and destroy any termites present.

Distribution

West Indian drywood termite distribution in Australia

Source: Australian Faunal Directory. CC BY 3.0 AU 

C. brevis was first recorded in Australia in the 1960s and is now established in eastern coastal areas, mainly in Brisbane, Maryborough, Bundaberg, and Rockhampton, and has also been found in Sydney and Canberra.

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Heterotermes ferox

Family: Rhinotermitidae, Heterotermitinae

Type: subterranean, native

Description

Heterotermes ferox soldier

Source: Sarah McCaffrey Museum Victoria. Creative Commons licence: CC BY 3.0 AU 

Heterotermes ferox mainly does superficial damage on weathered wood of poles, fences, posts, flooring and timber decking. It is generally of minor economic importance but occasionally damages sound timber. Colonies are subterranean and small but it can have multiple colonies close together. Workers and soldiers are slow moving and not aggressive when disturbed. Soldiers are 3.5-7.5 mm long with long rectangular heads and long mandibles.

Distribution

Distribution of Heterotermes ferox

Source: Australian Faunal Directory  CC BY 3.0 AU

Heterotermes ferox occurs in Australian Capital Territory and New South Wales. ABIS reports that the species is more widespread, being found in southern Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and southern Western Australia, and is the most commonly encountered species of Heterotermes in southern Queensland.

Schedorhinotermes intermedius

Type: subterranean 

Family: Rhinotermitidae, subfamily: Rhinotermitinae, native

Description

Schedorhinotermes intermedius soldier

Source: Simon Hinkley & Ken Walker Museum Victoria. Creative Commons licence: CC BY 3.0 AU 

Schedorhinotermes intermedius has two types of soldier called major and minor: 

  • Minor soldier: 3.0-5.0 mm long with narrow head 
  • Major soldier: 5.0-7.5 mm long with bulbous head, produced in mature colonies 

It tends to nest in tree stumps and roots of living or damaged trees. Around buildings it attacks timber buried in the ground. It builds multiple subterranean nests which can have several thousand individuals. Its multisite nesting makes it difficult to survey the extent of an infestation. 

Schedorhinotermes intermedius is the second most important termite economically in most areas of Australia, according to ABIS. Workers build a plaster-like layer over their feeding areas to protect themselves from the environment, unlike other termite species which tunnel inside the wood to feed.

Distribution

Schedorhinotermes intermedius occurs mainly in coastal areas from SE Queensland to south of Sydney. There are several closely related species that occur in distinct areas of Australia: S. actuosus, S. breinli, S. derosus, S. seclusus, S. reticulatus (See the PaDIL Australian Biosecurity website for more details)

Nasutitermes fumigatus

Weathered wood termite 

Family: Termitidae 

Type: subterranean, native

Description

A soldier caste of the weathered wood termite, Nasutitermes fumigatus

Source: Museums Victoria. CC BY 4.0 International 

Nasutitermes fumigatus live in small colonies, nesting in the ground and on decayed wood. They feed on damp and weathered wood, such as decking boards on verandas around the outside of homes. They do not attack sound structural timber in dry conditions. 

The soldiers are smaller than the workers, having a body up to 4mm long. The head is pale orange and nasute (pointed snout).

Distribution

South-eastern Australia.

Nasutitermes walkeri

Type: Subterranean 

Family: Termitidae, native

Description

Nasutitermes walkeri feeds on on decayed and weathered hardwood timber in damp conditions or in contact with the soil. It nests in root crowns where there is decay or fire damage and also builds ball-shaped nests higher up in fire-damaged trees, with tunnels connecting to the ground. Subterranean tunnels radiate out from the tree through the ground.

Soldiers are smaller than workers. Their body length is 5-7mm, the largest of the Nasutitermes species. The head is orange and nasute (pointed snout).

Nasutitermes walkeri soldier

Distribution

Distribution of Nasutitermes walkeri in Australia

Source: Australian Faunal Directory CC BY 3.0

Nasutitermes walker occurs in New South Wales and Queensland in the Murray-Darling basin and coastal areas.

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