Termites - A friend or foe?

Picture of termites.

Perhaps no other insect is so often associated with property damage as the tiny termite.

But is this bug truly an enemy? In answer, let us take a close look at the termite.

The termite fortress

One often sees towering termite homes. These are chimney-like structures that protrude as high as from 15 to 20 feet [5-6 m] above ground.

Picture of a termite mound or hill.

The mounds, resembling a concrete citadel, are built with such precision that termites have been called master architects.

Does it not defy the imagination to think that tiny insects could erect such impressive fortresses, even though they are quite slow on their feet—and blind?

Inside the mound is an elaborate maze of chambers and tunnels.

This bustling metropolis also boasts an efficient drainage system, ventilation, and even air-conditioning.

Hot air escapes through the top of the mound by means of portholes.

Cool air comes through the bottom. Further cooling is done by a simple evaporation system.

The termites spray their walls with water by spitting on them. As the water evaporates, it cools the air and assists with circulation.

The termite home thus stays at a pleasant 86 degrees Fahrenheit [30° C.] 24 hours a day!

Termite society

Even more amazing is termite society. Some termite mounds house efficient communities, or colonies, numbering up to five million residents.

Far from being chaotic, a colony is a study in efficiency. The termite family is made up of three castes, namely, workers, soldiers, and reproductives.

Workers do the actual construction of the mounds, using their saliva for cement.

Soldiers are the more aggressive members of the family. Armed with strong jaws and sharp teeth, they guard the fortress from invaders, such as army ants.

They also act as bodyguards to protect the workers when they venture outside the mound in search of food.

If needed, the soldiers resort to chemical warfare; a special gland acts like a squirt gun, releasing a lethal fluid.

How are the soldiers repaid for their services? Well, it seems their jaws are so large that they cannot chew food to feed themselves.

So when a soldier is hungry, it simply rubs the head of a worker with its antennae. That means, “Feed me!”

The worker responds by placing regurgitated food into the soldier’s mouth.

In the royal chamber, cloaked in total darkness, live the reproductives—the king and queen.

The queen is a giant compared with her diminutive mate. Her abdomen, swollen with eggs, is evidence of her prodigious reproductive powers.

It is estimated that she can lay from 4,000 to 10,000 eggs a day. No wonder some have called the queen “an automatic egg-laying machine.”

Not much privacy for the royal couple, though, as they are attended to by a team of termite workers.

These surround the queen, seeing to her immediate needs and providing her with food.

As the eggs are produced, the workers carry them off between their jaws to the nursery chamber.

Friends or Foes?

While few people would deny that these insects are fascinating, most still view them as pests—enemies!

It is true that termites are seen by people as one of the most destructive insects.

But scientists see termites differently. In the wild, termites are useful members of the plant and animal community.

First, they break down dead plant material into simple compounds. In this way, termites recycle nutrients that plants need.

Second, they are an important food source. They are eaten by almost every kind of bird and by many mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and other insects.

Many people in some communities also enjoy their sweet, rich taste; they are very rich in fats and proteins.

Third, they help to make soil. Termites mix subsoil and topsoil when they build and repair their nests.

They break down large pieces of dead plant material into smaller pieces, forming humus.

Moving through the soil, they make passages for air and water needed by plant roots.

Thus termites improve soil texture, structure, and fertility.

Why, though, do termites invade human habitations?

Actually, people have moved into the termites’ habitats and removed most of the plant resources used by termites.

Termites must eat to live, and they will usually feed on dead plants.

When these are taken away from them, termites feed on man-made structures, such as houses and granaries.

So although the termite may at times seem to be a pest, it surely is not our enemy.