The Five Senses of Termites

Subterranean

They may look disorganized, but subterranean termites have traits that help them stay on their destructive foraging, feeding, and reproduction paths.

The well-organized underground colony system can be home to several hundred to millions of subterranean termite members. To find cellulose food sources and grow the colony, termites use social cooperation to survive and thrive. But do they use the five senses—sight, hearing, taste, touch and feel—the way other animals do? We asked Dr. Neil Spomer, a Global Urban Pest Management Lab Leader and Field Scientist for Dow AgroSciences, to shed some light on exactly how subterranean termites use their own peculiar anatomy to find other termites and the decaying wood in your backyard.

Can subterranean termites see?

Only the king and the queen termites have eyes. The workers and soldiers are blind. According to Spomer, “As far as how well they can see, we’re not sure. Once they go subterranean into the soil, we could speculate that their ability to see declines.”

What can subterranean termites hear?

Termites don’t really have ears. However, they can sense vibrations. One of the behaviors they exhibit when they experience a vibration is head-pounding, which is a communication method for the termite colony. The range and perception of their sensitivity to these vibrations is not well known.

Do subterranean termites have a sense of smell?

Termites navigate using their sense of smell. When a termite finds a food source, it leaves a pheromone scent trail to recruit other termites from the colony to come find the cellulose food source, too. The scent trail is an effective part of the colony’s communication system, helping to keep the whole colony fed. Spomer adds, “A pheromone is a chemical not as we would define a smell. Termites use their antennae to detect a chemical trail—more of a chemical response, not a traditional ‘sense’ that we would understand, but a chemical signal they receive.” Besides pheromones, termites also respond to colony odors and hydrocarbons on the cuticles of other termites. They also detect and respond to carbon dioxide, although they don’t recognize it as such. “Because of the microbes on wood breaking down, there’s a carbon dioxide byproduct that’s given off as the wood decays,” Spomer says. Termites can also detect the Queen’s pheromones, which help regulate caste differentiations.

PHEROMONE ART

Pheromone trails help termites find food and their way to the Queen termite’s area.

Are subterranean termites able to taste?

Termites don’t have true taste buds, but they do have a cellulose-degrading organism in their stomach that helps them digest wood. They can discern between different types of wood, and some are more palatable to them than others. According to Spomer, “Softer wood that is partially decayed is easier for them to consume because it speeds the digestion process along.” This is why it’s important for homeowners to be aware of any leaks, standing water or drips inside their home or on the exterior foundation. (You can read more about other mistakes homeowners make that attract termites here.)

Termites will feed on all types of wood. This University of Florida video of a termite taste test demonstrates how they prefer the Recruit® HD termite bait in the Sentricon® System:

This video documents a termite trail leading straight to the Recruit HD bait. 

Do subterranean termites have a sense of touch?

They know what they like! Subterranean termites love a moist, temperature-stable environment (and the soil just below your lawn is ideal.) Termites do exhibit some thigmotactic (from the Greek word thigma, or “touch”) behaviors. According to Spomer, we should “think of it as how they like to get into crevices or cracks, something that touches on multiple sides of their bodies. “ If exposed to open air, the termites will construct mud tubes from packed earth, saliva and bits of chewed cellulose. And while these tubes are primarily meant to protect them from dehydration and ant attacks, some subterranean termites will also use this material to seal themselves inside edible lumber, and sometimes to create an entire, above-ground colony. This is why it’s so important for homeowners to seal the cracks in their home’s foundations and walls. Termites can forage along concrete and find a crack, which is the path of least resistance, and they will use it to find food.

The subterranean termite has a unique body that helps them adapt to their environment—be it a decaying, tree-filled wood or a freshly-constructed home. How can a homeowner make their home less palatable to these pests? By keeping up with simple home maintenance, being aware of warning signs, and calling a professional, such as a Certified Sentricon Specialist , to make sure that their home is protected. It’s the best way for homeowners to get peace of mind—and give their own senses a rest!

We love to talk termites! We’re happy to answer questions about termite anatomy, or how to recognize these pesky critters. Even if you just want to learn more about Sentricon, you can leave a comment here, or visit our Facebook and Twitter pages. That’s where the termite conversation goes on 24/7!

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