Isoptera Click to enlarge image
Termite (Order Isoptera) Image: Andrew Howells
© Australian Museum

Termites belong to the Order Isoptera.

What do termites look like?


  • 3 mm - 70 mm in length.


  • Long and column-like, or constricted at the neck with a swollen abdomen.
  • Head sometimes modified for defence.
  • Appears soft.


  • Beadlike.
  • Shorter than body length.


  • Winged termites have small and well-separated eyes.
  • Worker and soldier termites have very small or no eyes at all.


  • For chewing or munching.
  • Held downward at rest, though soldier termites may have large modified jaws held out in front.


  • Two pairs if present. Reproductive castes have wings but worker and soldier termites do not.
  • Fore- and hindwing membranous, clear and similar in size and shape.
  • Wing venation simple, lacking cross veins.
  • At rest, wings are held flat over body, overlapping and with hindwing hidden.
  • Wings are discarded after mating.


  • Six slender legs.

Abdomen tip:

  • Two short cerci (tails) with few segments.

Where are termites found?

  • In earthen or wooden nests formed in trees, soil mounds or underground. These nests are made from mixing soil or wooden material with their faeces.
  • In runways, which are undercover pathways that lead from nests to food or moisture source.
  • In the house, generally introduced species known as 'white ants'.

What do termites do?

  • They form large colonies with a sophisticated social class system with queen, king, worker and soldier castes. They share the responsibility for tending their young.
  • Australian species forage under shelter at all times; some foreign species forage in exposed situations.
  • When disturbed they run for cover. Soldiers may initially stand their ground and often swell in numbers to defend the nest. Soldier termites generally respond by attacking with large jaws or squirting noxious chemicals not harmful for humans but unpleasant for other invertebrates.
  • They are important recyclers of plant material. They are especially good at breaking down cellulose and lignin into useable nutrients.
  • Immature termites remain in the nest and are fed by workers.
  • They are active during the day and night.

What looks similar?

  • Ants can sometimes be confused with termites. However ants can be easily distinguished as they have a distinctive 'waist' with knobs, a hard body; and their antennae are thread-like with a distinct elbow.
  • Lacewings are occasionally mistaken for winged termites. The wings of lacewings, unlike those of termites, usually have many veins and numerous cells. They also have forked veins along the wing margin and are held tent-like over the body at rest.