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Biology of Termites

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Termite breeding complexities: primary and secondary reproductives

There is a large difference between the termite Queen, the termite King, and the alates, or secondary reproductive termites. Termites breed a large number of secondary reproductives to decrease chances of a family’s extinction. Termite reproductive processes are one of the most complex in the universe; one termite larva has the potential to become a member of any termite caste, depending on any of several variables throughout its younger life:

Primary Reproductives: Termite Queens and Kings

The size and appearance of the primary reproductive termites depends on the species of termite at hand. Termite queens in the tropics, for example, may reach up to five inches long and produce over one thousand eggs daily. Luckily, most of you don’t have to worry about that.

  • Termite queens start their mature lives as secondary reproductives, taking flight at a certain time of year (which varies depending on what climate you’re in) to begin a courtship process with male reproductives.
    • Once the flight has taken place, the queen that has chosen her king beds down in the soil near the wood-source they have chosen. After excavating a chamber, they begin mating, producing dozens of eggs at once. During this time the queen is of near average size, and with each birthing she grows a bit more distended in the abdominal area.
    • After a year or so, the queen has become quite large—common North American species reach nearly an inch and a half in length. As the abdomen reaches this point of distension, the white membranes beneath the exoskeleton of her abdomen become visible, giving her a striped appearance.
  • Termite kings remain the same size throughout their lives: relatively small in comparison to their queen.
    • King termites will spend most of their days caring for the queen; after she reaches “full” size, she is practically immobile, and unable to eat. The king feeds her through the common practice of “trophallaxis” common to ants and termites (as well as the termites’ forebears, the cockroach).

Monogamy in termite colonies

Surprisingly, in comparison to most other insects, termite reproductives are monogamous. Once a queen and king have settled together, they mate only with each other, producing large colonies that in turn carry the same incestuous family gene further.

Termite death-matches and the plight of secondary reproductives

In most instances, secondary reproductives—alates—serve as caretakers for the young. These termites are capable of becoming primary reproductives, but a pheromone inhibitor (a chemical emitted by the dominant queen and king of the colony) prohibits the further molting that needs to occur for them to become independent.


  • If a termite queen or king becomes ill and is near death, the gland will stop creating the pheromone. When this happens, secondary reproductives begin molting, morphing into primary reproductives.
  • In some species of termites, this situation results in all of the secondary reproductives engaging in ruthless battles to the death; the last members of each sex still alive at the end become king and queen of their termites’ clan, and life resumes as normal.

This exceptional behavior among normally harmonious and unassuming secondary reproductives has caused some stir in the scientific community, particularly in the genetic field.

It seems that the behavior, as drastic as it seems, serves to carry further Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest.

>>>>More on termite biology: The Social System

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