How Do Termite Nests Start?

Dr Thomas Chouvenc from the University of Florida has undertaken interesting research into the origins of termite colonies. 

Most pest managers are familiar with the seasonal termite swarms – the male and female termite alates which pair off to form new termite colonies. But how much do you know about how these new termite nests actually start? In laboratory studies using 450 incipient colonies of the termite Coptotermes gestroi, Ass. Prof Thomas Chouvenc studied the factors important for success at the founding stage of termite colonies.1

The new queen and king are entirely responsible for producing and raising the first cohort of termite workers. However, they don’t forage; they use their internal energy reserves to produce this first generation of offspring. The research showed that the primary limiting factor for successful colony development was the internal nutritional resources carried by the alates. The queen and king must establish a cohort of offspring (< 15 workers) capable of taking over alloparental care (care of the eggs and nymphs) within 150 days of colony founding or the alates will simply run out of resources and die. The alates are limited in the amount of resources they can carry so really only get one shot at success. Many don’t make it.

 

Life and death of a termite colony

The life cycle of a termite colony is often perceived as a relatively straightforward development pathway: colony founding, growth to maturity, maturity, senescence (old age) and then death. However, recent analysis of a massive field-collected data set from studies on Coptotermes formosanus over a 25-year period (1985- 2009) suggest there is a lot more variability in colony reproduction, demographics and longevity even within a termite species.2

The study reports on changes in colony dynamics of a number of colonies over their lifetime. Certainly, one colony followed the ‘standard’ development described above and was active for a ten-year period, then declined for three years before death. However, other colonies had more variable productivity, responding to the death/ fecundity of the primary reproductives in different ways and also being influenced by external factors. The ability to produce secondary reproductives (which doesn’t always happen) is critical to surviving the loss of the primary reproductives and can allow a colony to thrive for 20-30 years. The study also recorded a successful colony takeover, with a neighbouring young colony moving into an ageing mature colony.

This paper will be explored further in the 2023 issue of Termite Professional magazine.

1 Chouvenc, T. (2022) ‘Eusociality and the transition from biparental to alloparental care in termites’, Functional Ecology. 111 River St, Hoboken 07030-5774, NJ USA: Wiley. https://doi. org/10.1111/1365-2435.14183.

2 Chouvenc, T., Ban, P.M. and Su, N.-Y. (2022) ‘Life and Death of Termite Colonies, a Decades-Long Age Demography Perspective’, Frontiers in Ecology And Evolution. Avenue Du Tribunal Federal 34, Lausanne, Ch-1015, Switzerland: Frontiers Media SA. https:// doi.org/10.3389/fevo.2022.911042.

 

Ass. Prof. Thomas Chouvenc is one of the keynote speakers at the Termite Professional Conference on the Sunshine Coast in July. Come and hear him speak (and ask questions!) along with other world-class termite researchers. Day tickets available.