The genus Reticulitermes contains most of the termite species that are pests in North America, including R. flavipes, the eastern subterranean termite. Reticulitermes flavipes holds the honor of the most common and wide-spread termite found in North America, and the most economically important wood-eating insect in the United States. They feed on cellulose (the major component of plant cell walls), and are notorious for destroying man-made wood products, especially wood in buildings but also paper and books. Like other termites, R. flavipes is a eusocial species and lives in a colony with three castes: the reproductives (king, queen and alates – winged reproductive individuals), soldiers and workers. A colony can mature to the massive size of one million individuals, foraging for food up to 150 feet from the nest. New nests are formed annually when flying alates disperse to find a monogamous mate, the two build a nest and the female begins laying eggs to populate it. Billions of dollars are spent in the United States on control, treatment and repair related to this species. Pesticide applications are the traditional control method; preventative underground barriers are now regularly used in construction. Baited traps are also effective in controlling and eliminating populations, as foraging workers bring back food laced with a chitin synthesis inhibitor and distribute it to the colony. Although these termites are a destructive pest, in natural ecosystems they (and other termite species) play a critical role in terms of decomposition of organic material.
(Pence 1999; Su, Scheffrahn and Cabrera 2009; Wikipedia 2011)
R. flavipes is found throughout the eastern United States, as faro north as the Mississippi and as far south as Mexico. It has been accidentally introduced to southern France.
Biogeographic Regions: nearctic (Native ); palearctic (Introduced )
Termites are thought to have diverged early in insect evolution. Ancestors had gradual metamorphosis and the ability to fold their wings over their backs. Their body plan is simple, while their social behavior is advanced. Termites are hemimetabolous, medium sized, polymorphic (having more than one form) social insects. They have biting mouthparts, and antennae comprising 9 to 30 segments. The alate forms (winged primary reproductives) have four almost equal wings and compound eyes; however, the sterile workers and the secondary reproductives have no or greatly reduced compound eyes.
Each member of the R. flavipes colony (workers, soldiers, and kings & queens) looks different. R. flavipes soldiers are slightly bigger than workers and have enlarged and darkened orange head capsules. The workers are creamy-white and are approximately 5-6mm in length (Myles, 1998). As queens reproduce, they become massive creatures of up to 9cm long. The kings are cream colored like the workers, and look like tiny maggots compared to the queen. (Benavides, 1998).
Other Physical Features: ectothermic ; bilateral symmetry
In the north, colony populations of R. flavipes can reach up to 1-10 million. In addition, these termites may forage on territories up to several thousand square meters (Myles, 1998) Of the termites, only R. flavipes and its cousin, R. tibialis, build "shelter tubes" over foundations or through cracks in timber. They build these with soil particles, saliva, and feces. These tubes require constant moisture and soil contact to sustain the colony (Myles, 1998). The subterranean termites, themselves, must have contact with the soil in order to survive (Krishna, 1989). They may also live in giant termite mounds made of mud and ground mass. It is possible for termites to adjust the level of their nest to optimum moisture and stability levels.
Terrestrial Biomes: savanna or grassland ; forest
Termites ingest wood. They cannot, however, digest wood fibers. Instead, "Termites rely on single-celled animals -- protozoa -- that live in their gut to digest the hard components of wood, freeing up the cellulose that nourishes them." (Grady, 1996) They live off of the by-products of this process.
Plant Foods: roots and tubers; wood, bark, or stems
Primary Diet: herbivore (Lignivore)
Known prey organisms
Based on studies in:
USA: North Carolina (Forest, Plant substrate)
This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.
Life History and Behavior
R. flavipes reproduce in swarms. Swarming occurs when a colony reaches a certain size and when temperature and moisture levels are favorable. Usually this occurs on warm days after rainfall. Some researchers speculate that swarming occurs after rainfall because the ground is moist, which make it easier to create a new nesting site (Benavides, 1988). Alates, winged swarmers, fly from their native nest until they hit a "fracture point" in the air. This causes their wings to fall off (Benavides, 1998) This flight is not considered a mating flight because R. flavipes are only sexually attracted to their mates after their wings have broken off (Light, 1922). Once they find a mate, which takes a while because the female is choosy, they walk together to find a suitable nesting site. They mate after they've built a "nuptial chamber" in their new nest (Benavides, 1998). At her peak a queen will lay an egg every 3 seconds, or 30,000 a day. She will lay 10's of millions of eggs during her life (Ramel, 1998). The queen does not store a lifetime supply of sperm, so R. flavipes males remain as consorts to the queen (Benavides, 1998).
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Reticulitermes flavipes
Below is a sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species.
See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen and other sequences.
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Download FASTA File
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Reticulitermes flavipes
Public Records: 12
Specimens with Barcodes: 22
Species With Barcodes: 1
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
R. flavipes are by far the most destructive of all termites (Su and Scheffrahn, 1990). They are notorious for their destruction of manmade wood products. Billions of dollars annually go to damage repair and treatment (Su and Scheffrahn, 1990). Homes and buildings can be consumed by R. flavipes as their massive colonies expand.
"Termites are not all bad. In natural settings, they fulfill a vital function in breaking down the forest debris into raw materials that nourish new trees. Termites get into difficulty because they cannot tell the difference between a fallen tree and wood that is being used by humans" (Knowledge Book Enclyclopedia, 1997). By converting existing biomass to biomass that other animals can consume, termites support a large proportion of temperate vertebrate biodiversity, including many species of amphibians, reptiles, birds, and ground foraging insectivorous mammals. Termites are effective decomposers. Although not in widespread use now, they could be used to degrade damp rotten wood, wood chips, mill waste, structural rubble waste or other wood waste. They are relatively easy to handle and maintain, and could play a beneficial role in reducing landfill space.
Eastern subterranean termite
Reticulitermes flavipes, the eastern subterranean termite is the most common termite found in North America. These termites are the most economically important wood destroying insects in the United States and are classified as pests. They feed on cellulose material such as the structural wood in buildings, wooden fixtures, paper, books and cotton. A mature colony can range from 20,000 workers to as high as 5 million workers and the primary queen of the colony lays 5,000 to 10,000 eggs per year to add to this total.
The eastern subterranean termite is the most widely distributed termite found in the eastern United States. R. flavipes is commonly found in Southern Ontario, and is found in all the eastern states including Texas.
Other termites found there are the dark southeastern subterranean termite (Reticulitermes virginicus) and the light southereastern subterranean termite (Reticulitermes hageni). These are less important economically (such as in damage to crops) because of their more limited range.
Eastern subterranean termites, like other social insects, share resources and divide labor based on a caste system. They live in loosely associated societies called colonies which are composed of both males and females. The termites in the colony are generally organized into the worker caste, the soldier caste, and the reproductive caste.
Workers are about 3 mm long and are blind, wingless, soft-bodied, creamy white to grayish-white with a round head. They make up the majority of the termites that actually eat the wood. They are sterile and forage for food and water, construct and repair shelter tubes, feed and groom other termites, care for eggs and young, and participate in colony defense.
Soldier termites are also wingless and resemble workers except that they have a large, rectangular, yellowish-brown head with long black mandibles. The soldiers’ primary function is colony defense  and the mandibles are mainly used for crushing enemy ants which may invade the colony. Additionally, R. flavipes has a fontanelle (frontal gland pore) on the forehead which releases a sticky latex to ensnare enemy ants. The soldier caste only makes up 1 to 2% of the entire colony. The soldiers are not capable of feeding themselves and rely on the worker termites to provide them with regurgitated food.
These are the adult winged termites who have two pairs of long narrow wings of equal size, dark skin, and beaded antennae. A nuptial flight takes place, mating occurs and they shed their wings. They are black and about one centimeter long, with grayish transparent wings. Neotenic reproductives are potential kings and queens of the colony, available as replacements if needed. They are generally yellow or mottled black and the abdomen of the female may be distended with developing eggs.
R. flavipes are opportunistic, and a newly hatched termite can develop into any of a number of castes. At first, it becomes a worker termite and is most likely to remain one for its entire lifespan. Molting can change the worker into a pre-soldier and subsequently, a soldier. The soldier caste is a terminal stage which can no longer molt.
R. flavipes also molts into nymphs, which are the precursors of winged adult termites called alates which are sexually mature. Nymphal termites are non terminal and can revert to the worker stage. These reverted nymphs are called pseudergates. Nymphs and workers can also develop into secondary and tertiary neotenic reproductives respectively.
Because termites are social insects, they share a lot of their tasks. This can be seen through the caste system, where different castes take on different responsibilities for the good of the whole colony. R. flavipes cooperate in the rearing of young and also share their resources with the nest.
Swarming is the sudden, dramatic appearance of R. flavipes alates in the daytime from February to April. After this behavior male and female alates lose their wings, pair up, and form new colonies.
R. flavipes is mobile throughout its life and no permanent central nest area exists. Therefore all termite castes can be found in any of the different sites occupied by a colony. Their activity is determined by food, moisture and temperature, and movement is usually driven by one of these necessities. Termites feed on anything made of or containing cellulose, but can tunnel into non-cellulose containing material to gain access to their destination. This behavior can be destructive to human activities.
Along with Reticulitermes virginica, R. flavipes is responsible for 80% of the $2.2 billion spent annually in the United States on termite control. Termites feed on wood cellulose, meaning that their presence in human made structures often goes unnoticed for lengthy periods of time. A termite infested timber will appear structurally sound from the outside, while inside it will have a honeycombed appearance. To detect the presence of R. flavipes the observer can test the integrity of the wood by tapping it with a screwdriver. If present, R. flavipes is found at, near or below ground level. Trim work, sub flooring, flooring, and the structural timbers are the areas of a building most susceptible to termite damage. The Eastern subterranean termite is considered a serious economic timber pest and it is estimated that in high activity areas more than 1 in 5 homes have been or will be attacked.
Termite control methods include: physical barriers, chemical treatments, and physical treatments (such as heat, freezing, electrocution and microwave irradiation).
Structural damage to buildings is not R. flavipes’ only impact on humans. Termites also play a critical role in the decomposition of organic matter in natural communities. Without termites, the accumulation of dead organic matter on the forest floor would become detrimental to integrity of that forest. The benefits provided by R. flavipes in terms of their contribution to environmental regulation may far outweigh the disadvantages they pose.
- "Eastern Subterranean Termites Fact Sheet". pestcontrol.basf.us. Retrieved February 20, 2009.
- "Eastern Subterranean Termites". Fumapest Group. Retrieved February 20, 2009.
- Susan C. Jones. "Termite Control". Ohio State University. Retrieved February 20, 2009.
- dBugger.org. "Subterranean Termite Identification & Castes". Retrieved 2013-07-26.
- Nan-Yao Su, Rudolf H. Scheffrahn & Brian Cabrera (April 2009). "Native Subterraneans". Featured Creatures. University of Florida. Retrieved February 2, 2010.
- "Termites". University of Toronto. Archived from the original on October 21, 2008. Retrieved February 2, 2010.
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