Alate wings of Reticulitermes species have two hardened and thickened veins that are visible along the entire front end, but lack the small hairs that are characteristic of the Formosan subterranean termite, Coptotermes formosanus Shiraki. After indoor flights, most alates are found dead near windows or in sinks and bathtubs – usually with their wings still attached. As with other termite species, Reticulitermes colonies contain three primary castes; the reproductives (king, queen, alates, alate nymphs, and supplementary reproductives), soldiers, and workers. Alates and soldiers are used for species identification.
Soldiers of subterranean termites (Rhinotermitidae) are distinguished from those of drywood or dampwood termites (Kalotermitidae) by their smaller size and the relative width of the pronotum. In subterranean termites, the pronotum (segment immediately behind the head) is narrower than the head, while in kalotermidis they are equally as wide. Reticulitermes soldiers are further distinguished from those of Coptotermes formosanus by the rectangular-shaped head of the former compared to the oval-shaped head of the latter. Subterranean termites form a network of interconnected feeding sites beneath or above the soil surface. A single colony of subterranean termites, especially those of Reticulitermes flavipes, may contain 100,000 – 1,000,000 termites and forage up to 150 feet in search of food (Su et al. 1993).
When subterranean termites search for food aboveground, they may enter a house through small cracks or joints in the foundation, or by building shelter tubes along the foundation wall. These tubes are highways connecting the underground termite population with aboveground food sources. Because termites consume cellulose, the main structural components of plant cells, any wood material in a house is a potential food source, but they may also damage non-wood material in search of food.
Because termites rarely show themselves in the open, infestations can be difficult to detect until the damage becomes severe. In addition to the presence of alates and shelter tubes, wood material can be probed with a screwdriver or ice pick to locate infested wood. The surface of severely damaged wood may appear blistered or peeling, as termites hollow out the wood leaving a paper-thin surface. Reticulitermes tend to cover the wood they feed upon with soil, thus giving wood a more “dirty” appearance than Coptotermes formosanus-infested wood. However, it is not advisable to identify the termite species based solely on damage as there are many exceptions.
A single individual of the Formosan subterranean termite does not consume more wood than a single native subterranean termite, however, because of its large population size, a Formosan subterranean termite colony can cause more structural damage in a shorter time. Wood products that are infested by the Formosan subterranean termite may be recognized by tapping the wood with a hard object. In severe infestations, Formosan subterranean termite hollows out woods leaving a paper-thin surface. A hollowed wood surface may look blistered or peeled.