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Termites

Termites have been chewing away on wood for more than 250 million years, long before people started building their homes with wood. Termites recycle wood products into the soil by feeding on and breaking down cellulose, the main component of the cell walls in plants. Most of the 2,200 or so species of termites live in the tropics.

Most termite damage is caused by subterranean (underground) termites, members of the family Rhinotermitidae. Subterranean termite nests usually contact the soil, thus the name subterranean. Among these ground-dwelling termites, the most common structural pests are the eastern, western, and Formosan subterranean termites. They will eat your framing starting at the bottom of the house and like softwoods.

Other termites that cause structural damage include the drywood termites (family Kalotermitidae) and the dampwood termites (family Termopsidae). Drywood termites enter at the roofline and damp wood termites like basements and bathrooms or where water leaks occur. 

If you suspect you have a termite problem, your first step is to confirm that the pests are, indeed, termites. Some people mistake termites for ants. So what do termites look like?

Termites have a ten-segmented abdomen with two plates, the tergites and the sternites. The tenth abdominal segment has a pair of short cerci. There are ten tergites, of which nine are wide and one is elongated. The reproductive organs are similar to those in cockroaches but are more simplified. For example, the intromittent organ is not present in male alates, and the sperm is either immotile or aflagellate. However, Mastotermitidae termites have multiflagellate sperm with limited motility. The genitals in females are also simplified. Unlike in other termites, Mastotermitidae females have an ovipositor, a feature strikingly similar to that in female cockroaches.

The non-reproductive castes of termites are wingless and rely exclusively on their six legs for locomotion. The alates fly only for a brief amount of time, so they also rely on their legs. The appearance of the legs is similar in each caste, but the soldiers have larger and heavier legs. The structure of the legs is consistent with other insects: the parts of a leg include a coxa, trochanter, femur, tibia and the tarsus. The number of tibial spurs on an individual's leg varies. Some species of termite have an arolium, located between the claws, which is present in species that climb on smooth surfaces but is absent in most termites.

Unlike in ants, the hind-wings and fore-wings are of equal length. Most of the time, the alates are poor flyers; their technique is to launch themselves in the air and fly in a random direction. Studies show that in comparison to larger termites, smaller termites cannot fly long distances. When a termite is in flight, its wings remain at a right angle, and when the termite is at rest, its wings remain parallel to the body.

Termites are usually small, measuring between 4 to 15 millimetres (0.16 to 0.59 in) in length. The largest of all extant termites are the queens of the species Macrotermes bellicosus, measuring up to over 10 centimetres (4 in) in length. Another giant termite, the extinct Gyatermes styriensis, flourished in Austria during the Miocene and had a wingspan of 76 millimetres (3.0 in) and a body length of 25 millimetres (0.98 in).

Most worker and soldier termites are completely blind as they do not have a pair of eyes. However, some species, such as Hodotermes mossambicus, have compound eyes which they use for orientation and to distinguish sunlight from moonlight. The alates have eyes along with lateral ocelli. Lateral ocelli, however, are not found in all termites. Like other insects, termites have a small tongue-shaped labrum and a clypeus; the clypeus is divided into a postclypeus and anteclypeus. Termite antennae have a number of functions such as the sensing of touch, taste, odours (including pheromones), heat and vibration. The three basic segments of a termite antenna include a scape, a pedicel (typically shorter than the scape), and the flagellum (all segments beyond the scape and pedicel). The mouth parts contain a maxillae, a labium, and a set of mandibles. The maxillae and labium have palps that help termites sense food and handling.

Consistent with all insects, the anatomy of the termite thorax consists of three segments: the prothorax, the mesothorax and the metathorax. Each segment contains a pair of legs. On alates, the wings are located at the mesothorax and metathorax. The mesothorax and metathorax have well-developed exoskeletal plates; the prothorax has smaller plates.