Desert Termites

Desert Termites



Similar to most other termites, the desert termite has three castes (stages) in their colony – the workers, soldiers and male/ female reproductives, often called the kings and queen. Worker termites are the most abundant and provide food and colony maintenance. The soldier caste is armed with large teeth-like mouthparts, and their role is to protect the colony from predators. The reproductives are about ½-inch long with a light-brown body and wings, and they are the reproducers within the colony.


Desert termites are very susceptible to losing moisture and drying out, so they build moisture-retaining tubes or sheets that are made of carton – a mixture of moist soil and feces that is glued together with the termite’s saliva – to overcome this obstacle and survive. Desert termites tunnel in or on the soil, and their tunneling makes the soil more porous, a soil characteristic that improves the infiltration of rainfall and can improve plant growth in arid areas. Desert termites feed on living, dead or decom¬posed plant material and prefer a habitat of living and dead grasses, plus under livestock manure.


Females of all reproductive forms can lay eggs to produce offspring. New desert termite colonies are formed by winged reproductives called swarmers that leave the established colony, find locations for new colonies and become kings and queens of the new colony. The insects are known to swarm before sunset following summer rainstorms.


Signs of desert termites include the presence of workers, soldiers or swarmers and the presence of their protective tubes on and in the soil.


Desert termites are most likely to be found in west Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.


If needed, your pest management or lawn professional is the best person to identify desert termites to ensure the termites on your property are not one of the serious, wood-damaging subterranean termite species. Correct identification is critical since desert termites are likely to benefit, rather than harm, rangelands, crops or turf. In addition, desert termites rarely damage structures on the homeowner’s property. Therefore, desert termite control in turf grass is not rec¬ommended. Instead, practice normal lawn care by using sufficient amounts of water and fertilizer, which usually overcomes any turf-related problems caused by desert termite feeding.

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What do termites eat in the desert

Desert Termites
Author: Ray Bowers

Click On Picture for Larger Image
Species: Gnathamitermess perplexus

Desert termites are from 6 to 15mm (0.25 to 0.5 in ) long social insects. Termites are ant like in appearance, but have a broad connection between the thorax and the abdomen, not constricted like ants. The head has a small pore on top that produces secretions used in making dirt tubes. The antennae are straight or slightly curved and threadlike in appearance. Other then these characteristics, the different castes vary In their appearance. The reproductive castes have dark colored bodies and they are the only caste that has wings. The four wings are of equal length and width, but the wings are quickly lost after mating. The workers have pale yellow to white bodies and chewing mouthparts. The soldier caste has enlarged head and large straight mouthparts that are incurved at the tip.

Geographic range:
Termites are found worldwide, but in the United States they are found in the Southwest.

Desert termites form large subterranean colonies, and can be found under rock, wood, or “cow chips.” They will often construct earthen tubes over wood and vegetation.

Click On Picture for Larger Image

Food Web:
Termites feed on cellulose found in plant material. The termites chew the plant material, but in desert termites bacteria that live in the termite’s digestive tract digest the cellulose. If the bacteria are not present the termites will feed, but die of starvation. Some types of termites have flagellated protzoans instead of bacteria. Termites play and important role in the environment by breaking down dead plant material. This is especially important in a dry environment like the Chihauhaun Desert . The termites are eaten by a variety of insect eating predators.

Reproduction and Development:
Only the reproductive caste mates, and after mating the queen begins to lay eggs. At first the queen and hatched nymphs take care of the eggs. Later the worker caste will take over this task. Termites undergo simple or incomplete metamorphosis. The nymphs have the potential to develop into any of the castes, but chemicals secreted by the reproductive and soldier castes determine how the nymphs will develop.

Behavior :
In termite societies the queen lays the eggs, but all of the work such as building the colony, gathering food, and taking care of the young is done by the worker caste. The role of the soldier caste as the name implies is to defend the colony. Termites groom each other. Termites will feed on cast skin, feces and dead individuals in the colony, and this allows the digestive bacteria to be passed from generation to generation.

Ecosystem roles :
Termites are major decomposers of plant material in the Chihauhaun Desert . Since cellulose can not be digested by most organisms termites convert this material into termite bodies that are digestible by a variety of insect predators. Termite tunnels aerate the soil, and provides a path for water infiltration.

Kingdom : Animalia
Phylum : Arthropoda
Subphylum : Atelocerata
Class : Hexapoda
Order: Isoptera
Family: Termitidae
Genus: Gnathamitermed
Species: Gnathamitermess perplexus

Borror, Donald J. and Richard E. White. 1970. A Field Guide to the Insects of America North of Mexico. Boston : Houghton Mifflin Co.

Borror, Donald J., Charles A. Triplehorn, and Norman F. Johnson. 1989. An Introduction to the Study of Insects. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders Co.

Bland, Roger G and H. E. Jaques.1978. How to Know Insects. Dubuque , Iowa : Wm. C. Brown Co.

Larson, Peggy and Lane Larson. 1977. The Deserts of the Southwest. San Francisco : Sierra Club Books.

MacMahon. James A.1985. Deserts. New York : Alfred A Knopf, Inc.

Werner, Floyd and Carl Olson. 1994. Insects of the Southwest. Fisher Books, LLC.

Related Terms: Arthropod, Hexapoda, Insects

What do termites eat in the desert

Termites are morphologically uncomplicated insects, in contrast with their astonishingly complex social behavior. Superficially termites resemble and are sometimes mistaken for ants, which also exhibit social behavior. Sonoran Desert termites range in size from 4 to 11 mm (J – 7/16 inches) long, not including the wings of alates (the winged reproductive adult forms that appear occasionally, especially during and following rains). Workers are white with small head capsules. Soldiers have enlarged head capsules, and very formidable jaws, or in one of our species, a snout-like structure.


There are over 40 species of termites in 10 genera widely distributed in the Sonoran Desert.

Order: Isoptera
Suborder: Apocrita
Families: Kalotermitidae, Hodotermitidae, Rhinotermitidae, Termitidae
Sonoran Desert genera:
    Paraneotermes, Pterotermes, Incisitermes, Marginitermes, Zootermopsis, Heterotermes, Reticulitermes, Amitermes, Gnathamitermes and Tenuirostritermes
Spanish name: termitos
Reticulitermes sp. alate

This highly successful group of social insects plays an essential ecological role in the decomposition and recycling of a nutritionally poor, highly resistant, but extremely abundant substance: cellulose. Cellulose is a poly-saccharide, that is, a large number of sugar molecules linked together by tight chemical bonds to form a very long, strong chain. Cellulose is the substance that gives plants their structure and is the most abundant organic compound in the world. Wood is mostly cellulose, and so are cotton and all paper products. In the Sonoran Desert, trees, shrubs, grasses, and cactus skeletons are the primary source of cellulose, which represents more than half of all the organic material produced by photosynthesis. Cellulose is durable because it is a physically strong material resistant to mechanical breakdown, but more important, very few organisms produce enzymes that can chemically break it down. Among those that do produce the cellulose break-down enzyme cellulase are fungi and tiny animals called protozoans. Termites do not produce cellulase, but all termites contain protozoans in their guts in a mutually beneficial relationship known as mutualism. Termites grind up the cellulose mechanically by biting off bits and chewing them up; then the protozoans in their guts break down the chewed mass into sugars, which are readily absorbed through the termites’ guts. Both the termites and their protozoans share in the nutritional benefit of these released sugars. Newly hatched termites are first inoculated with these indispensable protozoans by eating the feces of their older brothers and sisters.

Reticulitermes sp. worker
(Redrawn from Linsenmaier,Insects of the World)

The ecological importance of Sonoran Desert termites can best be understood by considering the following question: What would happen if we didn’t have termites in our desert? Well, because our aridity severely limits the abundance and distribution of wood decaying fungi, without termites, we would soon be neck deep in cellulose in the form of mesquite and palo verde wood, dead grasses, cactus skeletons and dung. Eventually, few living plants would be left to produce food for animals because there would be no space for new plant seedlings to establish and no nutrients to sustain their growth. All of the space would be taken up by dry, un-recycled cellulose litter, and all of the nutrients would be tied up in this material and thus unavailable for plants in the soil. Without plants fixing carbon-producing food, most animals would disappear. So, without termites, the whole desert ecosystem as we know it would simply collapse.

Our termites partition the desert’s cellulose into many ecological niches. For example, one drywood termite, Marginitermes hubbardi, feeds primarily on saguaro skeletons, and another very large primitive drywood termite, Pterotermes occidentis, is a specialist on palo verde wood. Gnathamitermes perplexus, the crust-building subterranean desert termite, feeds on grass, fine dry plant parts and the weathered outer surfaces of woody tissues of all kinds. Heterotermes aureus, the lowland subterranean termite, is an important consumer of native woods on the desert floor and also of pine.

Life History

Zootermopsis angustucolus soldier
(Redrawn from Wilson, The Insect Societies)

In the Sonoran Desert large, well-established termite colonies of many species produce nymphs in the late spring. When these nymphs shed their external skeletons for the last time, fully-formed functional wings unfold from the wing pads, and the resultant individuals are called alates. Alates are reproductively mature males and females ready and eager to start new colonies. They stay in the parent colony until conditions are optimal (usually during or after rain); then they leave the galleries of the colony, surrounded by soldier termites ready to defend their brothers and sisters against ants and other enemies as they depart. The alates then take flight.

The season and time of termite flights depend on the species, but alates from all colonies of a given species in an area fly simultaneously. Just how far alates fly is not known for any species, but it is assumed that the flights of reproductives serve to assure new colonization some distance from the home colony. The simultaneous flights also promote outbreeding by increasing the probability that reproductives from one colony will mate with members of other colonies.

Soon after winged termites alight, they shed their wings by breaking them off at lines of weakness (like perforations in paper) near the point of their attachment to the body. Females may then use a chemical odor called a pheromone to “call ”males. Males attracted to this substance may be accepted or rejected by the female. A rejected male is forced to try his luck elsewhere. The fortunate male who is accepted by a female is permitted to follow her on the ground as she runs quickly about looking for the ideal place to start a new colony. During this “tandem running” phase of courtship, the male remains within touching distance of the female until she finds the “perfect” place (in the ground or in dead wood, again depending on the species of termite) to begin a new colony. The pair then settles into a monogamous relationship and cooperative family rearing.

Amitermes sp. primary queen
(Redrawn from Wilson, The Insect Societies)

After mating, the queen lays a few eggs that soon hatch into tiny termite larvae. These are fed and nurtured by both the mother and father until they are large enough to begin foraging for wood and other sources of cellulose, at which time the young termites take over the work of feeding the larvae that have hatched from a second set of eggs. When the parents feed their first batch of offspring, the protozoans required to produce the enzyme needed for cellulose digestion are transferred from the mother’s and father’s stomachs to the larvae, and this protozoan inoculum is all that is required to get a culture going in the offspring so that they too, with the aid of the microbes, can digest their own cellulose.

Social Behavior

Termites can accurately be described as “tiny social cockroaches” because they evolved from a common ancestor with wood-dwelling cockroaches, to whom they are very closely related. They first appeared on earth during the age of the dinosaurs, about 100 million years ago. Termites are social in ways not unfamiliar to humans. We live together with others of our kind in complex societies, we divide the many tasks needed to support our communities and we care for our young long after they are born. Termites likewise live in complex societies, have division of labor, and care for their young.

American Cockroach

A well-established termite society or colony minimally consists of a king and queen, which are responsible for producing offspring: soldiers, which defend the colony against its enemies; and workers, which collect and process wood or other sources of cellulose and feed the royal couple and the soldiers, which are unable to feed themselves. Workers also care for eggs produced by the queen, and they tend to the young termite larvae that hatch from these eggs. The categories of king, queen, soldiers, and workers in a termite colony are referred to as castes. All of these are wingless; however, after a termite colony reaches a certain size (a few dozen to several thousand individuals, depending on the species), the colony begins to produce nymphs. These nymphs have small pads on their backs that contain developing wings. Regulation of the development of different castes in a termite colony is controlled by chemicals in the colony that are transferred from individual to individual by social feeding called tropholaxis. Exactly how different developmental trajectories are regulated in termite colonies remains an entomological mystery.

Knee Deep in Dung

Termites eat dead plant material and herbivore dung, thereby removing this litter from the surface of the land, permitting sunlight and moisture to reach new growth. On its own, dry cow dung decomposes very slowly. Research conducted in southwestern deserts and desert grasslands by New Mexico State University’s Walt Whitford estimates that without the action of termites, cow pies would smother the land, covering 20 percent of the surface in 50 years.

Desert Termites

The desert termite is a type of subterranean termite. Desert termites are one of ten species of termites that can be found in arid regions of the southwest United States.


The desert termite has a light brown body, and is about 3/8 inches. These termites are also social creatures who live in large colonies. The three castes within a colony are workers, soldiers and male and female reproductives.

The most abundant are the worker termites. As with the colonies of most termite species, they perform the various tasks associated with keeping the colony functioning. These tasks include foraging, caring for the young and building and repairing the nest.

The soldiers protect the colony. They have long, powerful and pointed jaws that are slender, and fairly strong for their size. If threatened, the soldiers will line up and be ready to attack intruders while workers block the opening. This is important for the survival of the colony when fending off predators.


As with other termite species, the desert termite primary reproductives, when conditions are right, can fly off from the primary colony, find a mate and form separate colonies. This is called “swarming.”

Termites are cold blooded, so the desert termites tunnel deeper into the soil to more stable temperatures during the winter. In the summer, they feed on live grass plants. That menu changes a bit during the fall, as the desert termites feed primarily on standing dead grasses and plant litter.

Desert termites can be found in the deserts of southern Arizona and southern California. They can live and build their colonies in many types of places, including desert plants, litter, dung, fence posts and similar objects. They construct fragile tubes made of sheets of mud and get the moisture they need from their nests. They don’t really pose a threat to humans.

Desert termites generally don’t invade homes, tunnel into wood or eat the wooden structures of homes. This makes them quite different from other subterranean termites. What they feed on, instead, is live, dead or decomposed plant materials. This is why desert termites are not considered a threat to humans or homes.

However, there are other species of termites, like Eastern subterranean and drywood termites, that can pose a threat to your home. Learn more about those relentless invaders and how Terminix® can help.

Considering The Lack Of Vegetation In Deserts, How Can Desert Termites Find Food?

Considering The Lack Of Vegetation In Deserts, How Can Desert Termites Find Food?

Since termites are the most ancient of all living social insects, it makes sense that they evolved into several different species that can inhabit various types of ecosystems. Despite the evolutionary success of termites, it is difficult to imagine termites surviving in the desert. After all, termites eat cellulose found in wood and plant matter. Sources of sustenance are not easy to come by in a desert. However, there are plenty of different termite species that dwell in deserts. In the United States, the Sonoran desert is home to subterranean termites, dampwood termites, and drywood termites. It may be hard to believe, but if all native desert termites were removed from their habitat, then massive amounts of plant debris would litter vast desert landscapes. Without desert termites, deserts would look entirely different.

While it is true that desert environments are not conducive to most forms of vegetation, desert termites are well adapted to survive in arid conditions. Deserts are not completely free of vegetation. Grassy savannas can be found in tropical deserts, and even the most arid deserts contain patches of dead grass. Dead cactus skeletons provide another source of cellulose for desert dwelling termites. In the Sonoran desert termites can also consume Palo Verde wood, Mesquite wood and dung. Termites are particularly important to the Sonoran desert environment, as wood-eating fungi cannot grow as a result of this regions excessively arid climate. This makes termites the only hope for clearing the Sonoran desert of dead wood, cactus skeletons and other forms of vegetation.

If the Sonoran desert were to become littered with dead plant matter, then new plants would not be able to grow. This alone would be enough to kill nearly all animal species dwelling in desert ecosystems. The desert soil also needs nutrients in order to nourish plant life. These nutrients are all contained in dead plant matter, so the plant matter must be converted into usable nutrients. This is exactly what termites do for desert ecosystems. By consuming dead plant matter, termites are recycling unusable nutrients into usable nutrients for desert soil. To put it one way, without termites deserts would not exist as they do today.

Do you believe that desert ecosystems would collapse without native desert termites?

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