Dr Google’s got a lot to answer for. It’s easy to believe all the information you need to tell different types of termites apart is at your fingertips. Less than 5% of Australian termite species are ‘destructive’. Put that way, it sounds as though you haven’t got much to lose if you get it wrong. The odds sound like they’re on your side.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case at all. Confusing destructive and benign types of termites is both easy and disastrous. So, how do you get it right when it comes to telling the different types of termites apart?
What you MUST know about Australian termites
Termites are an ancient species of insect of the order Isoptera. They’re much more closely related to cockroaches than ants. Globally, there are around 2300 termite species with 250-350 species in Australia. Of those, it’s often said only 12 are considered ‘destructive’. Whether termite species are considered destructive turns on their potential to cause economic harm, often in the context of extensive and expensive structural damage to residential properties.
The grim reality is, if you live in South-East Queensland, you’re living alongside some of the most destructive types of termites in Australia. Contrast that to Tasmanians who have an almost negligible risk of encountering destructive types of termites. It’s all in the distribution of the most destructive breeds of these frustrating critters.
Why it’s so easy to confuse different types of termites
As a species, all termites share some common features, and that’s why it’s easy to confuse some types of termites with others.
A social species
All termites are a social species of insect. Termite colonies are composed of a central nest that’s sometimes linked to ancillary (secondary) nests. Termites work together with the goal of sustaining the colony with each member of the colony allocated a role.
Another feature common to most termite species is the caste system. Each colony can be broken down into 3 ‘castes’ (except for some Mastotermes):
- The ‘reproductives’ (a queen and king) and alates (potential reproductives destined to leave the colony to swarm, mate and form new colonies)
- ‘Soldiers’ who defend the colony, and
- ‘Workers’ who source food for the colony, often travelling significant distances from the central nest via underground tunnels and mud galleries (tubes) to do so.
The workers form the overwhelming majority of members of the colony. They’re also the most destructive types of termites. They’re tasked with finding and bringing back food for the entire colony.
Sources of food
All types of termites eat cellulose. Cellulose is a naturally-occurring substance found in wood and wood products. Termites digest it with the aid of a microscopic protozoa found in their gut. They share a symbiotic (i.e. mutually beneficial) relationship with the protozoa. However, they also consume fungi and other organic material.
Things that set types of termites apart from each other
That’s where the similarities end. Termite species are further broken down into three main categories: dampwood, drywood and subterranean termites. Those terms generally describe their feeding habits, where they’re found and how they tend to form colonies.
Whilst they share some things in common, the differences vastly outweigh the similarities. Those points of difference include:
- Their physical appearance: size, shape, colour, features and the stage they’re at in their life cycle
- How and where they nest (i.e. whether they have ancillary or satellite nests as well as a central nest)
- Where they nest (i.e. above or below ground)
- Where they’re found in Australia (e.g., tropical, sub-tropical, arid or urban areas)
- Whether they’re a native or introduced species
- Where they source their cellulose from
- How destructive they are
- How difficult they are to eradicate.
Without significant training and expertise, it’s almost impossible to determine these factors with the naked eye or a quick search online. If in doubt, call the professionals!
What termites eat
All termites feed on cellulose. Cellulose is contained in wood, wood products and timber, as well as other naturally-occurring organic material. However, one of the things that sets termite species apart is where they get the cellulose from. Whilst some termites eat timber, others will rely on other sources of food such as grass and spinifex, fruit, bark, leaves, crops such as sugarcane, shrubs and trees. Some termites will even attack other substances presenting as an obstacle in their search for food. Some termites prefer hardwoods, other types of termites prefer softwoods.
Australia’s incredibly diverse natural environments mean that termites that flourish in one part of the country might not be present in another. For example, the further north you go in Australia, the higher the risk of termites. This, too, is partially determined by available food.
How they live
Different termites prefer different living arrangements. That means the nest of one termite species will look completely different from another’s. For example, you’ll find different types of termites living in
- termite mounds
- subterranean (underground) nests in soil
- rotting logs
- buildings, even at height.
Australian types of termites and their characteristics
There’s a consensus that the most destructive types of termites in Australia are the Coptotermes and Mastotermes. They contribute significantly to millions of dollars of damage to properties and crops annually. However, there are other types of termites you also need to be on your guard against.
Types of termites in South-East Queensland
If you’re in South-East Queensland, here are some of the most common (and destructive) types of termites lurking in your neighbourhood.
Said to be responsible for more than 2/3 of all termite damage in Australia, this subterranean termite species is considered Australia’s most destructive. They’re also the most widespread of timber pests. These termites are found across Australia, and will comfortably reside in close contact with urban development.
They’re highly-secretive, enabling them to easily escape detection. That’s what enables them to cause extensive damage. They’re also attracted to areas where there are a lot of eucalypts. They’re voracious eaters who’ll not only feed on timber but will also feast on grass, leaves and bark. That makes it easy for them to adapt and survive in challenging conditions.
Another species active in coastal areas, especially around Brisbane through to Rockhampton, is the Coptotermes lacteus. This is a type of termite that builds a clay-walled mound. They prefer damp or otherwise degraded timber or rotting wood found in or adjacent to the soil.
Commonly found in South-East Queensland, the Heterotermes ferox is a termite species that prefers decaying wood and will happily co-exist alongside another termite species.
These termites differ in appearance from some of the other types of termites. That’s because they have a black, sharp pointed head and cream-coloured body. They’re commonly found in southern Queensland, as well as the southern states. They’re renowned for building nests which are slightly mounded, emerging up to 75cm above the ground. For that reason, you’d probably think that you would know if you had them near your home. Unfortunately, they often opt to construct their nests in a location where they’re concealed under other structures, such as beneath a deck.
Feeding on damp or decaying timber, the Natsutitermes walkeri can be located along the eastern seaboard of Australia, particularly in New South Wales and Queensland. They prefer to build their nests up off the ground, often in the trunks or branches of trees. They’re not as destructive as Coptotermes acinaciformis but the two are often confused due to similarities in physical appearance.
These are also a species of termite commonly found along the eastern coastal fringe of Australia. They’re also a highly destructive type of termite. They tend to build their nests in tree stumps, root crowns and beneath man-made structures such as dwellings. They favour locations featuring wood or timber that’s in contact with the soil as it accelerates decomposition or timber decay.
Why getting the termite right means getting the treatment right
It can be extraordinarily difficult to tell different types of termites apart. Get it wrong and you’re off to a bad start. You won’t necessarily know whether the termites you have are a destructive timber pest. They could be a more benign species that plays an important role in the local ecology.
If your termites are destructive timber pests, identifying them correctly is the first step to exploring your available treatment options and their effectiveness.
The good news is you don’t have to dig out the bug catcher and play Russian Roulette by trying to identify your termites. It’s so much easier to get professional advice!
We can carry out a thorough termite inspection and identify the types of termites present in and around your home. Then we’ll advise you on a tailored solution to tackle your termites once and for all!