San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Who Are These Guys, Anyway?

The broad term “termite” encompasses about 4,000 insect species in the world, only about one-tenth of which are pests that cause destruction. The various dry-wood and subterranean species – the classification describes their habitat and feeding patterns – are those that wreak havoc on property.

“White ants,” the colloquial term used in English, is a misnomer. Termites, about three to 20 millimeters in length and members of the order isoptera, are slower moving, lighter-colored and thicker in the torso than ants.

Spanish uses two words, termita and comején, to describe the insect. Costa Rican Spanish uses them interchangeably, and comején more commonly, but most experts in the field distinguish the two to refer to different stages in the termite’s life cycle, explains Federico Paniagua of the University of Costa Rica’s (UCR) InsectMuseum.

(Yes, there is such a museum, found, of all places, in the basement of the Musical Arts building on the UCR campus in the western suburb of San Pedro.)

Termites are highly socially structured, living in colonies ranging in size from several hundred to a million insects.

When colonies reach a certain number, they give rise to reproductive males and females whose sole job is to fly from the nest, mate and begin a new colony. This gives rise to the commonly seen phenomenon of swarms of winged termites seen flying after heavy rains.

Those reproductive termites then shed two pairs of membranous wings following mating. The female becomes the queen of the new colony, continually laying eggs to produce workers, whose job is to supply food to the colony – they’re the real culprits in the destruction of your home – and soldiers, who defend the colony against ants, the termite’s primary predator.


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