Termite Nest: Structure and Features

Termite Nest: Structure and Features

What are termites?

Termites are wood-eating insects that live in colonies and survive on cellulose obtained from wood. Although termites are often termed as “white ants”, they are actually closer relatives to cockroaches than ants, especially wood cockroaches that feed on wood like termites. Termites generally live in the wild and feed on decaying wood. However, termites can make their way into homes and feed on foundational wood and furniture, making them a pest when inside our home.

The termite caste system

Termites, similar to bees and ants, live in colonies. The colonies have multiple overlapping generations of termites, and a precisely defined role hierarchy between reproductive and non-reproductive members of the colony. This role hierarchy among termites in a colony is also referred to as the “caste system”. In a typical termite colony, there are 6 different types of termites:

  1. King
  2. Queen
  3. Secondary queen
  4. Tertiary queen
  5. Soldiers
  6. Workers

These six different termite castes are classified into three major groups:

  1. The reproductives (comprising a king termite, a queen termite, a secondary queen and a tertiary queen);
  2. The workers, and
  3. The soldiers.

More on the structure of a termite colony and definite roles that each member in the colony plays will be discussed in the following sections of the article.

What does a termite look like?

There are about 2,000 termite species known to the world, of which 350 species are found in different regions in Australia. The common termite species include:

  • Mastotermes (or Giant Termite)
  • Cryptotermes (or West Indian Dry-Wood Termite)
  • Neotermes (or Ring-Ant Termite)
  • Porotermes (or Dampwood Termite)
  • Heterotermes
  • Coptotermes
  • Schedorhinotermes
  • Microcerotermes
  • Amitetermes (or Compass Termite)
  • Nasutitermes

These common species of termites fall into three major groups:

  1. Dampwood termites
  2. Drywood termites
  3. Subterranean termites
Most termites have similar features:
  • length of their body ranges from 0.25 to 0.5 of an inch
  • thick waist
  • short legs
  • a straight antenna.

Some termites have distinctive features that separates them. For example, in a termite caste, reproductives have wings which they shed upon reaching maturity and leaving their nests. Queen termites have a massive abdomen which restricts their mobility. Both worker termites and soldier termites are wingless and without eyes. Worker termites have hard and strong oral features that help them in gnawing wood. Soldier termites have a large head and strong mandibles which can be used for defence. 


Dampwood Termite

Drywood Termite

Subterranean Termite


Dampwood termite

MAF Plant Health & Environment Laboratory (2011) Dampwood Termite (Porotermes adamsoni)  http://www.padil.gov.au.

Dampwood termite

Patrick Gleeson, CSIRO

Subterranean Termite

Scott Bauer, USDA Agricultural Research Service,


 1/2 to 5/8 of an inch

3/8 to 1 inch

1/8 of an inch


Creamy white to brownish

Creamy white to light brown

Creamy white to dark brown/black


Highland and Coastal Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland, Northern Territory and Southern Australia

Maryborough, Brisbane, Bundaberg, Townsville and Rockhampton

Victoria, Eastern New South Wales, South Eastern Queensland


The termite nest and colony

Termites are insects and their usual habitat is not your house, but outside in nature. Although one termite might not look threatening due to its size, if you put together thousands and thousands of termites, they are quite skilled as architects.

A termite nest or mound can extend up to 5 metres, maybe higher. This towering mound is the collective effort of an entire termite colony, rather than a single termite. Termites, based on preference, can live in either nests or mounds. Termites found in the wild generally live in mounds. However, those who invade their way inside human habitats tend to prefer living in nests because of the abundance of food.

A termite nest or mound starts with two reproductives: a male and a female. These winged reproductives (or “alate”)s were also part of a colony but upon reaching maturity, they paired and took flight in search of a new nest. Once the pair find a suitable nesting site (subterranean termites nest in soil while dampwood and drywood termites prefer timber), they shed their wings, mate and lay eggs. The termite colony now has a king termite and a queen termite. Termite queens, during the colony’s early stage can lay 10–20 eggs. However, as years pass and the colony grows old, termite queens can lay as many as 1000 eggs a day. For some species of termites, the queen has the capacity to lay as many as 40,000 eggs per day.

Termite eggs are tiny, white or light brown in color and translucent. With time, the termite eggs hatch and produce larvae. The worker termites are assigned with the duty of sourcing and foraging food, caring for other caste members and in maintaining the nest structure. Soldier termites protect the nest from invaders, like ants.

What does a termite nest look like in your house?

We first need to know how these insects living in a mound in nature suddenly start living rent-free inside our house. Two factors come into play when termites decide to migrate:

  • food, and
  • moisture.

Most houses have foundational elements made of wood. When infrastructure is built upon soil or nearby timber (which may be an existing termite nest), the wood in the foundation comes in contact with a pre-existing termite colony. Termites have a voracious appetite, and a new, rather appetising source of food. Termites start eating their way through the foundation, eventually building a full-scale colony within walls and wooden framework. The furniture in our homes can  become their dessert.

Identifying a termite nest can be difficult, firstly because no one randomly breaks open wood to check for possible termite infestations and secondly, because early signs and symptoms are covert. Different types of termites have their own signature invasion and nesting manoeuvres. In the following section, some common features of a termite nest and tell-tale signs that there is a nest are covered.

Drywood/Dampwood Termites

These types of termites start off their colony inside dry or damp wood so you may find galleries inside the wood they colonised, which resembles a maze. These galleries cannot be observed from outside the infected wood, unless it is taken apart.

Subterranean Termites (exotic to Australia)

Subterranean termites live primarily in soil, therefore they only come in contact with wooden entities inside our house only when the house itself is in some way in contact with their colony. Porches, patios, window sills and framework bridge the gap between an existing termite colony in the soil and your house. Because subterranean termites live in soil, going towards a more nutritious food source inside your house is quite a journey for them. In order to ease their migration, subterranean termites build mud tubes. Mud tubes look like accumulation of dust and they can be found very commonly near termite infested areas of your home. Termites use these mud tubes to travel from their colony, to this new food source and sometimes from one food source to another. Mud tubes also provide termites with protection and cover during migration.


As primary indications of termite infestation, you can often find discarded wings inside your house left by swarmers or new alates. Termite frass or termite droppings are another telltale indicator of a termite infestation, which are sometimes mistaken as saw dust.

Termites are voracious eaters. A colony containing hundreds and thousands of termites can eat through infrastructure before you can act and cause damages costing millions of dollars. As a preventive measure, it is always recommended to conduct a thorough check of your home to scan for possible termite infestation or sites at risk. We recommend a DIY termite baiting system which are cost effective, eco-friendly and can be easily handled by homeowners. These measures can help you keep termites away, and save you from bearing devastating loss and expenses.

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