Because they look like pale ants, and for want of a better name, the Chinese call them “white ants” (“bai ma yi” in Mandarin). The Malay name is “anai-anai”, although some are beginning to use “semut puteh” (or white ants). Termites are more closely related to the cockroaches than to ants. You are closer to truth if you call them “white” cockroaches.
Of the 3 groups of termites (dampwood termites, dry wood termites and subterranean termites), the subterranean termites account for 90% of all termite-related damage. As the name suggests, subterranean termites nest in the soil and they travel in between panels, walls, steel, in fact in any crack and crevice, in their tireless search for food, which is cellulose found in timber and wood-based products. In the process they also conduct exploratory feeding, thus damaging electrical wirings and conduits although these do not contain cellulose.
In their natural environment, they have an ecological role when they reduce fallen trees into nutrients for other living plants. Unfortunately they cannot distinguish between the jungle and Man’s habitat. As a result the wreak havoc in timber structures and furniture of buildings, causing millions of dollars of repairs and replacements.