Termites undergo incomplete metamorphosis. This means that, unlike many insects such as flies, they do not go through the egg, larva, pupa, adult cycle. Termite eggs hatch into nymphs which undergo a series of moults until they become adults. The number of moults will vary by species and also according to the eventual role of the adult termite.
The length of the life cycle depends on the availability of food, temperature and, to a lesser extent, the needs of the colony. Pheromones from the queen (or less commonly, the king) control the development of the nymphs, determining whether they will be workers, soldiers, kings or queens.
Pheromones also dictate when winged termites or alates appear. The alates are fertile males and females that swarm from their nests to start new colonies.
When a colony is still new, the queen may only lay as few as 10 to 20 eggs a day. Within a year or two this may have increased to 1,000 eggs a day. Once the colony is fully established, a single queen might lay up to 40,000 eggs daily.
Termites are best known for their ability to consume cellulose, which is abundant in nature, found in wood and plant material. These insects are among the few creatures that possess the necessary bacteria in their gut to break down cellulose for digestion.
Only workers can turn cellulose into food. The other castes lack the bacteria to convert cellulose, so they rely on a food sharing system called trophallaxis. By passing on pre-digested cellulose to their fellow termites, workers feed all the other members of the colony.
Termites are social insects that live in highly organised colonies consisting of castes. Each caste is noticeably different in physical appearance and in the work they do. All colonies have fertile males (kings) and females (queens). A single colony may have more than one of each. Termite queens can still lay eggs at 50 years old, making them the longest-lived of all insects.
The rest of the colony comprises soldiers and infertile workers, which may be male or female. Soldiers come in various sizes depending on the species and are equipped in different ways to defend the nest. The workers will forage for food, tend the nymphs and maintain the nest.
Keenly sought by many predators as nutritious snacks, this pest has learned to stay out of sight even when present in large numbers.
A colony may only have a few hundred termites or multiple nests totalling millions of individuals. The nests can be complex structures complete with rudimentary air conditioning. Size and structure will depend on the species and the environment.