The Terrible Termite

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Nature Magazine, September 1937

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Early settlers were probably no more alarmed at the cry of "Indians" than are present-day dwellers in wooden buildings at the cry of "termites". These little insects, commonly but erroneously called white ants, have, in the past few years, received almost as much publicity as many other public enemies of larger size who have more conspicuous ways of robbing the public. Owners of wooden houses all over the country are becoming more and more apprehensive over the possibility that their own buildings may harbor colonies of these little chisellers with the big appetites.

The widespread destruction wrought by these insects, said to amount to a yearly total of fifty millions of dollars in the United States, has led to the development of a new industry, that of termite extermination, which in some cases is a legitimate and honest business, but much of which is just another racket preying on the fears and gullibility of the public.


While much has been written and published about termites, I have found that many people still have only a vague idea about the appearance and behavior of these insects, often confusing them with the tropical mound building species. Most of the termite damage in the United States occurs in the south but these insects are found in every state in this country. If, as has been claimed in many a newspaper headline, they are on the increase, this may be due to the general upsetting, by man, of the balance of Nature through the destruction of many wild creatures that would contribute toward keeping them in check.

Termites are social insects living in colonies. Although they are frequently called white ants they are not true ants, but belong to a family of ancient lineage more nearly related to the cockroaches. Normally they are creatures of the forest and in the well organized plans of Nature it is their job to assist in breaking down dead wood and returning it to the soil. Only by accident do they enter the habitations of man and carryon their destruction.

In the termite colony there are several kinds of individuals, or castes. Most conspicuous among these are the workers, soldiers and the nymphs of the reproductive caste. There is also a fertile queen and her spouse or spouses and there may also be several supplementary queens. The first three of these are yellowish white in color, the soldier having a somewhat darker and much enlarged head with prominent mandibles or jaws. Workers are about three sixteenths of an inch in length, the soldiers and the nymphs slightly larger.

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