• Subterranean termites are the most destructive insect pests of wood in the United States.
  • $2 billion in damage each year
  • Subterranean termites are social insects that live in nests or colonies in the soil
  • termites attack the wooden elements of human structures

In nature, subterranean termites are beneficial. They break down many dead trees and other wood materials that would otherwise accumulate. The biomass of this breakdown process is recycled to the soil as humus.

Problems occur when termites attack the wooden elements of human structures — homes, businesses, and warehouses. Their presence is not readily noticed because they hide their activity behind wallboards, siding or wood trim.

Homeowners in all areas of Missouri should watch for subterranean termites and take precautions to prevent infestations. To minimize damage from termites, it is helpful to know the description, life cycle and infestation signs of termites as well as preventive and control measures.

What do Termites look like?

Reproductive males and females can be winged (primary) or wingless (secondary or tertiary). Each can produce new offspring. The bodies of primary reproductives, also called swarmers or alates, vary by species from coal black to pale yellow-brown. Wings may be pale or smoky gray to brown and have few distinct veins. Swarmer termites are about 1/4 to 3/8 inch long.

Termite workers make up the largest number of individuals within a colony. Workers are wingless, white to creamy white, and 1/4 to 3/8 inch long. They do all of the work of the colony — feeding the other castes, grooming the queen, excavating the nest and making tunnels. In working, they chew and eat wood, causing the destruction that makes termites economically important.

Unsure of what to look for? Learn about the most common signs of a termite infestation:

Shelter Tubes

Termites build shelter tubes made out of tiny bits of soil glued together by the termites to connect their underground colony to a cellulose source. Cellulose is contained in paper, cardboard, furniture, picture frames, plywood, floor joists, windows, wall studs, and in a variety of other products. Inside of these tubes they are able to travel to their food source while maintaining a perfect environment for their soft bodies. Shelter tubes may be visible on foundation walls, floor joists, floors and subfloors, siding, wall studs and drywall.


In the spring, termite colonies produce “swarmers”- the winged adults that fly away to form their own colonies. Swarming usually occurs during the daytime and is simply nature’s way of reminding you that termites are nearby. Soon after swarmers take flight, they shed their wings. You may find small piles of wings in spider webs and on surfaces around your home’s foundation, on window sills, or on the floor.

Wood Damage

Subterranean termites damage wood according to a distinctive pattern. These cellulose loving insects can leave nothing behind but the wood grain. Their damage may be hidden inside the walls of a home since this species destroys wood from the inside out. Termite damage also contains mud tubing particles that the termites have carried into the wood for protection from predators and moisture loss.