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Refresher Brief: Isoptera 101

By Dr. Stuart Mitchell

Microscopic, single celled protozoa take in particles of ingested wood and render cellulose sugar for their mutualistic host. Dependent upon one another for ecological survival, it is thought that protozoa are behaviorally transferred from adult termite workers to the young. This exchange of regurgitation occurs within colonies of social and eusocial insects. An exchange known as trophallaxis from the Latin, tropho or “to nourish,” and allaxis or “to exchange.”

Top: a termite worker. Middle: termite worker gut. Bottom: arrows point to spirochetes and “P” a protozoan. (Credit: John Breznak, Michigan State University)

More closely related to the Order Blattaria, termite soldiers possess a generally rectangular head capsule with species distinct mandibles. Workers are notable for a broadly joined thorax and abdomen. As their Order signifies, winged reproductive termites or alates possess two pairs of opaque, linear, thin, and equal-sized wings.

Living in a colonial and “socially ranked” system, all termite castes are bisexual. It is thought that determination of caste is post-ovum emergence. Via trophallaxis, nymphs receive hormones secreted from reproductives and soldiers that limit development to a specific caste.

While other castes are repelled, light and air currents stimulate alates. Postnuptial flights, alates shed wings and in pairs attempt to found a new termitarium.


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