Monday, December 21, 2020

The Reclusive Reticulitermes

So, I've kinda been keeping a species of Blattodean secretly for the past several months... I wasn't supposed to keep them for long, the plan was to send them to my friend once the weather got cooler... But then I forgot to do that, and it got TOO cold, so I'm kinda stuck with them for a few more months... figure I may as well post about them then! 😂 
Now, when I say Blattodeans, I mean one of the more recent additions to the order Blattodea, termites! 😃 Formerly in the order Isoptera, termites were recently found to actually be in the same order as roaches, the Blattodea, they're merely eusocial, advanced cockroaches. The species I have belongs to the genus Reticulitermes, and I suspect is R.hesperus based on the range, (caught them here in Idaho), however, it's possible they may be another species, perhaps even an undescribed one, the genus likely needs work done... (a common theme for the Blattodea). 

Now, my friend Brandon Maines has been on a termite collecting spree the past year, and has several Reticulitermes species/strains from around the US, all of which he's bred successfully, and so when I found a dozen Reticulitermes under a wooden board out in the field by my neighborhood this summer, I collected them to send to him. But, termites are kinda heat sensitive, so shipping them in the summer would have killed them. The plan was to send them in the fall, and I did send Brandon a package this fall... But forgot to add the Reticulitermes, as I rarely do maintenance on them and kinda forgot I had them... 😂 So I'll have to wait until spring to send them to him. 

Now the way termites normally work is there are queen and king alates, winged reproductive individuals that fly away from the colonies they were born within in mass "nuptial flights" to found new colonies together. After pairing up, they shed their wings, burrow down into the ground or in wood (depending on the species), then they mate, the female gets to laying eggs, and baby termites hatch out, which continue to molt and become workers or soldiers, depending on what the colony needs at the time. Workers build the tunnels and chambers and harvest food for the colony, whilst soldiers have enlarged heads and jaws or other armaments, and defend the colony from intruders. 
Now, the nice thing about Reticulitermes and some other termite genera (like Zootermopsis), is that, although they do have queens and kings in their colonies, which are the sole reproductive individuals in normal colonies, when separated from the main colony, normal workers and soldiers can become secondary reproductives, and will produce offspring of their own. Secondary reproductives have enlarged thoracic pads, but don't actually sprout wings, and their offspring usually just become workers, soldiers, or secondary reproductives themselves, I don't think alates are usually produced unless the colony is very stressed. There can be many secondary reproductives per colony too I believe. So in captivity, they can basically breed indefinitely, without the need for queens or kings, unlike ants and most other eusocial insects where if you don't find the queens, you'll never be able to actually get a colony established, and with most ants you'd never be able to breed them indefinitely either, your colony's lifespan would be tied to the queen's lifespan.

My little culture is doing pretty well so far, I've got them in a small, minimally ventilated container with some dirt at the bottom, rotten pine on top of that (that's what I found some in earlier this year), and an inch or so of coconut fiber on top of that. I recently added some rotten cottonwood and some toilet paper on top of the coconut fiber, which they've started feeding on. I'm keeping them humid, cool and dark. 
I caught around 20 of them in the summer, all were workers, but at least one of them has molted into a soldier, and I'm pretty sure I saw a secondary reproductive in there a few weeks ago. They have made lots of tunnels in the substrate and wood, some against the sides of the enclosure, so I can still observe them a bit despite their secretive nature. Plus, they come to the surface every now and then to eat at the new wood I put in there, so I was able to separate a couple and get some pictures of them! 

Here are those pictures:



Interesting how these two castes look so different from each other, yet they both start out looking like workers. I was unable to find a secondary reproductive to photograph, but they basically look like workers with enlarged thoracic pads.
Just thought I'd post about these weirdos before I inevitably send them off to Brandon, they're an interesting Blattodean for sure, but not one I'm particularly interested in keeping myself, especially considering R.hesperus is infamous for causing serious structural damage to wooden structures... I have a thing about not keeping pests, not for the long term at least. 😂 Wouldn't mind keeping dampwood termites like Zootermopsis one day though, which strictly feed on rotten wood and aren't pests.

Anyways, that's gonna do it for this post, hope you all enjoyed, thanks for reading, stay safe, and I'll see you all next time! 😉

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