Social insects are among the world's most successful species at invading of new habitats. A good example of this invasive ability is Reticulitermes (Rhinotermitidae), a prominent group of subterranean termites. As a result of human intervention, i.e. transportation and creation of urban heat islands, Reticulitermes have been able to invade and thrive in cities located in areas where the natural habitat is normally too cold for colonization. They commonly infest man-made structures where they can cause extensive damage.
This study was designed to evaluate the invasiveness of Reticulitermes urbis that was probably introduced in France from the Balkans. Invasive potential was assessed on the basis of features typical to invasive social insects, i.e. unicoloniality, low intraspecific aggression, high level of polygyny and colony reproduction by budding. The opportunity to study establishment and spreading processes arose after extensive sampling of an imported Reticulitermes urbis population was performed over the entire city of Domène, France (Rhône-Alpes region).
For the first time, genetic analysis showed that the termites belonged to a single ‘genetic entity’ forming a vast colony covering about seven hectares. The colony was structured as an extended family with separate reproductive centres. We speculate that termites were introduced in a single location from which they gradually budded throughout the old town. Based on the absence of aggression among different nests within the colony, we defined this ‘genetic entity’ as a supercolony.