Eastern Subterranean Termite

Reticulitermes flavipes

Photo courtesy of Herman Moxey

Eastern Subterranean Termites are one of many species of termites that live in our area. These termites live in huge colonies of up to one million members.

Termites build a network of tunnels both above and beneath the soil. Above ground, the tunnels are inside tubes made of earth and body fluids.

Termites have three life stages: egg, nymph, and adult. When nymphs hatch from eggs, they are cared for by adult termites in the colony. Nymphs shed their skins (molt) several times as they grow, each time becoming more like an adult, until they are full grown.

Termites have three castes. Castes are like "classes" of adult termites. When eggs hatch, some nymphs will grow into workers, others will be soldiers, and some will be reproductives. Workers and soldiers are blind, and reproductives have not only eyes, but wings. Reproductives can be a king, queen, or alates.

Each caste has an important role for the colony to be successful.

Mississippi State University Extension Service


Mississippi State University Extension Service


Mississippi State University Extension Service

Reproductive (alate)

Most termites will grow into workers. Workers tend and feed young termite nymphs. They also build and repair the nest, and look for food. Termites eat wood.

Soldiers protect the colony from invaders, and also protect workers that are outside the nest looking for food.

Reproductives usually are alates. Alates have wings and can mate and start new colonies. Some reproductives do not have wings. They will stay in the old colony and serve as replacements if the King or Queen dies.

You can tell the three castes apart, because they look very different. Workers are creamy white in color and smaller. Soldiers, are also creamy white, but have a large dark head and strong jaws. Alates are brownish-black with wings.

Photo courtesy of Herman Moxey

A new colony of termites starts when the Queen lays eggs. These will hatch into workers. They will find food and help raise other nymphs that hatch into more workers. Later, when there are plenty of workers, the Queen will lay eggs which hatch into soldiers. The Queen never leaves the nest.

Later, the Queen will lay more eggs which will become reproductives. The ones without wings will stay in the colony, in case something happens to the Queen or her mate, the King. Most, though, will grow wings and become alates. When alates are fully grown, they will leave together at the same time in the Spring. People often see huge swarms of alates leaving the ground on a warm Spring day after a rain.

Alates will fly briefly until they find a mate. A pair of elates will then break off their wings, burrow into the soil, and start a new colony. The pair will become King and Queen of the new colony.

An Eastern Subterranean Termite colony will have many feeding sites connected with tunnels. Some of the tunnels are beneath the ground, while others are above ground, made by sticking soil together will body fluids. These look like tubes made of dirt. Workers will travel through these tubes on their way to look for food. They may find food up to 350 feet from their nest.

Eastern Subterranean Termites eat wood. This helps decompose (break down) old branches, trees, and stumps so that the nutrients can go back into the soil to be used later by new plants. These termites have an important organism living in their stomachs. This tiny, microscopic organism, called Tricohonympha agilis, is the one who actually breaks down the wood. By themselves, the termites could not digest it. This is an example of a Mutualistic Relationship. Tricohonympha agilis gets protection and food by living in the termite's stomach. The termite has a "helper" living inside it to break down the wood so the termite can digest it. Tricohonympha agilis does not harm the termite, and the termite would die without it.

Predators of Eastern Subterranean Termites include ants, other termites, birds, and bats. Birds and bats will eat the flying alates when they swarm in the Spring. Other insect predators, such as moles, shrews, and frogs will eat termites as well.

Additional Media

Termite's Head Under a Microscope #1
Link to Image
Termite's Head Under a Microscope #2
Link to Image

Relationships in Nature:


White Oak

Black Carpenter Ant

Virginia Creeper

Tricohonympha agilis Mu

Silver Maple

Eastern Mole

Poison Ivy

Soil Mite C

Yellow Poplar

Least Shrew

Bracken Fern

Eastern Worm Snake C


Spring Peeper

Cinnamon Fern

American Beech

American Toad

Japanese Honeysuckle

Black Willow

Garden Centipede

Wild Grape

American Elm

Wood Frog

Virginia Pine

Big Brown Bat

American Sycamore

Great Crested Flycatcher

Black Oak

American Robin

Eastern White Pine

Wild Turkey

Green Hawthorn

Northern Bobwhite

Red-winged Blackbird

Ring-legged Earwig

White-breasted Nuthatch

Six-spotted Tiger Beetle

Relationship to Humans:

Eastern Subterranean Termites are extremely helpful, since they break down old wood so it can be used again. They can also be one of the worst pests to people when they destroy wood from structures such as houses, sheds, and wooden poles. However, usually they eat wood that is already damaged from moisture and rot.


Reticulitermes flavipes


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