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Reticulitermes flavipes is the most destructive and commonly controlled termite pest in the United States, and this species’ underground colonies are prevalent beneath residential and commercial properties in and around Boston. R. flavipes is commonly known as the eastern subterranean termite (EST), and like all subterranean termite species, ESTs remain within moist ground soil at all times. Colonies are made up of workers, soldiers and the queen and king, but only workers infest moist structural wood within homes and buildings. A mature EST colony contains as few as 20,000 to as many as 5 million individuals, but the average population of a mature colony is around 300,000. Most individuals within a subterranean termite colony are worker termites that are responsible for foraging, nest construction, and brood care.

New subterranean termite colonies are initiated by reproductive swarmers (alates) that take flight from existing colonies every spring in the Boston area. Alates are only produced within colonies once they reach maturity, which takes between three and seven years. In order to initiate a new colony, a male and female alate must establish a provisional nesting site in moist soil where they can mate and become the royal pair of a new colony. The female alate becomes a queen once she sheds her wings and begins laying eggs in the nest. The queen’s small size at this early stage is inadequate for egg production, which is why colonies are initially slow to grow. During the first year of colony development, the queen is only able to produce a few hundred eggs, but she quickly grows several times her original size until she is able to produce between 5,000 and 10,000 eggs annually.

As developing colonies become more crowded with offspring, workers expand the size of the original nest. As time goes on, workers further accommodate the increasing number of nestmates by establishing smaller secondary nests around the original nest. After a decade or so of development, a single colony will consist of a network of interconnected nesting sites that can span an area as large as ⅓ of an acre or more. In order to keep the relative number of workers, soldiers, nymphs and alates properly balanced within a colony, the queen secretes specific pheromones that trigger nymphs to develop into workers, secondary reproductives, or soldiers, and workers to develop into alates.

Have you ever found subterranean termite mud tubes around a dead tree or stump within your yard?