Living With Animals: Termites

By Hope Bidegainberry on May 3, 2019
Termites at a small hole in the timber. Larger-than-life reproduction ratio. Termites are insects in the order Isoptera.

While every creature may not seem equally deserving of our love (even I find it hard to get all doe-eyed over fleas and ticks), awareness of those with whom we share the planet leads to a bigger and better appreciation of all life. That’s a good thing, and serves here as an apology to termites for missing the celebrations back in March which was Termite Awareness Month. What can we learn to appreciate about those who literally munch our houses into powder?

Although the bane of homeowners, termites are actually ecologically beneficial if not critically important. In the wild rather than in your walls, termites break down tough plant fiber, recycling dead and dying trees and other big plants into new soil. Furthermore, their tunnels aerate and improve soil, sponsoring the growth of new trees and other plants. Absent the work of the ever-munching termite, our forests would have died long ago, with new growth choked out by the dead and fallen trees littering the surface. It’s a very good thing for the planet that termites first evolved some 130 million years ago serving as cleaning machines to make room for all the experiments in natural selection and evolution which followed. If that’s not enough to make you a termite fan, let me note that unlike many so called “higher” animals, termite males continue to contribute to the life of the colony beyond just keeping the van rockin’! Enlightened bugs, both male and female termites share in parental duties and males also share in housekeeping. For some termite species, those well-kept homes are large-sized mounds, some of which have been around and in constant use for 4,000 years, now grown so large that they can be seen from space.

Termites don’t actually eat wood, by the way. Instead, they feed on the cellulose found in wood and wood-based products (causing some $5 billion in property damage each year). More accurately, it is the bacteria which symbiotically lives in termite guts which breaks the cellulose down into digestible form, and that’s only possible because termites feed their gut bacteria by eating the poop of other termites, making each little insect a tiny but rather complex eco-system. Too much awareness…?

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