The Formosan subterranean termite (Coptotermes formosanus) is an invasive species of termite. It has been transported worldwide from its native range in southern China to Formosa (Taiwan, where it gets its name) and Japan. In the 20th century, it became established in South Africa, Sri Lanka, Hawaii, and the continental United States.
The Formosan subterranean termite is often nicknamed the super-termite because of its destructive habits due to the large size of its colonies and its ability to consume wood at a rapid rate. A single colony may contain several million individuals (compared with several hundred thousand termites for other subterranean termite species) that forage up to 300 feet (100 m) in soil. A mature Formosan colony can consume as much as 13 ounces of wood a day (about 400 g) and can severely damage a structure in as little as three months. Because of its population size and foraging range, the presence of a colony poses serious threats to nearby structures. Once established, Formosan subterranean termites have never been eradicated from an area.
Formosan subterranean termites infest a wide variety of structures (including boats and high-rise condominiums) and can damage trees. In the United States, along with another species, Coptotermes gestroi, introduced from Southeast Asia, they are responsible for tremendous damage to property resulting in large treatment and repair costs.
The Formosan subterranean termite acquired its name because it was first described in Taiwan in the early 20th century, but C. formosanus is probably endemic to southern China. This destructive species was apparently transported to Japan prior to the 17th century and to Hawaii in the late 19th century. By the 1950s, it was reported in South Africa. During the 1960s, it was found in Texas, Louisiana, and South Carolina. In 1980, a well-established colony was thriving in a condominium in Hallandale Beach, Florida. Formosan termites are rarely found north of 35°N. They have been reported from 11 states, including Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. Their distribution will probably continue to be restricted to southern areas of the United States because the eggs will not hatch below about 20 °C (68 °F).
C. formosanus is a generalist, colonial, social insect building colonies either above or below ground. Termites have a caste system, including a king, queen, workers, soldiers, and alates (winged termites). The workers provide the food, soldiers defend the nest, and reproductives breed the colony. The queen of the colony has a lifespan around 15 years and is capable of producing up to 2,000 eggs per day. The workers and soldiers may live 3–5 years with caste proportions around 360 workers per 40 soldiers. A colony is surrounded by an extensive foraging system consisting of tunnels underneath the ground, with a mature colony containing millions of termites. Older and less vigorous colonies contained workers that had a larger body mass than workers in younger colonies.
The diet of the subterranean termite consists of anything that contains wood fiber (homes, building, live trees), crops, and plants. Live trees include oak, ash, and water-bound cypress. Crops include sugarcane. Like many other termites, the Formosan termite feeds on wood and other materials that contain cellulose, such as paper and cardboard. Bacteria and other single-celled organisms live in the termite digestive system and digest cellulose, providing nutrition and energy for these termites. Although they feed mostly on wood, they eat other cellulose-containing materials such as cardboard and paper. However, they are known to chew through foam insulation boards, thin lead and copper sheeting, plaster, asphalt, and some plastics.
Colonies of C. formosanus feeding on pecan, Carya illinoensis and red gum, Liquidambar styraciflua produced significantly more progeny than colonies feeding on other wood species tested. Progeny of colonies feeding on pecan and American ash Fraxinus americana had significantly greater survival than progeny of colonies feeding on other wood species. Colonies feeding on nutritionally supplemented, cellulose-based matrix showed similar fitness characteristics as colonies feeding on the best wood treatments. These results indicate that differences observed in colony fitness can be partially explained by nutritional value of the food treatment, raising the possibility that wood from different tree species has different nutritional values to the Formosan subterranean termites. This suggests that feeding preference of C. formosanus is at least partially influenced by the nutritional value of the food source.
A single colony of C. formosanus may produce over 70,000 alates. After a brief flight, alates shed their wings. Females immediately search for nesting sites, with males following closely behind. When the pair finds a moist crevice with wooden materials, they form the royal chamber and lay about 15 to 30 eggs. Within two to four weeks, young termites hatch from the eggs. The reproductives nurse the first group of young termites until the young termites reach third instar. One to two months later, the queen lays the second batch of eggs. These eggs will eventually be nursed by termites from the first batch of eggs. A colony may reach substantial numbers to cause severe damage and produce alates within three to five years.
C. formosanus has its greatest impact in North America. It is currently one of the most destructive pests in the United States, estimated to cost consumers over $1 billion annually for preventive and remedial treatment and to repair damage caused by this insect. In New Orleans, 30-50% of the city's 4,000 historic live oak trees are believed to be infested, with total damage costing the city $300 million a year. In North America, C. formosanus creates significantly bigger colonies, and therefore more damage, than native US termites, which reside underground and enter buildings only to forage. C. formosanus is the most destructive, difficult to control, and economically important species of termite in the southern United States.
Impacts of increased use of pesticides to control the termite population has led to higher costs for homeowners and destructive effects on the environment, including contamination of water supplies caused by runoff.