The Kingdom of the Termitoidae it seems, is quite impressive. They’ve been around since the dinosaurs. They are as indestructible as cockroaches. The have colonised ( = invaded) just about every mass of land except the Antarctica. Colonies can range in size from just a few hundred individuals to millions! Not just that, but the scientists, bless their little cotton socks, have identified about 3,106 different species of the little munchers. And they are little, measuring only between 4 – 15 mm in length.
This is how it goes. They don’t like being cold. Europe only boasts 10 species. North America 50. But they really love Africa where there is 1,000 of them. Kruger National Park alone has 1.1 million active mounds. South America has 400 species, Asia 435, Australia 360. They’re everywhere!
It turns out they have a very distinct caste system – workers, soldiers, kings and queens. Queens apparently have the longest lifespan of any insect in the whole world – up to 50 years. And they are bigger, up to 10 cm. Let’s face it, if you’re pushing out millions of babies all your life you need to be strong.
The King and Queen marry for life. Like any other couple in love, life starts out with a honeymoon. In their case it’s called a nuptial flight where the happy couple go house hunting. Once they have found the best spot, they build the house and go inside. Never to come out again! Then the real work starts. Her job is to make millions of babies. As a young bride she produces a mere 10 – 20 a day. As she and the colony mature, it hikes up to 1,000. At her best is can be as many as 40,000! Because she’s so busy pushing them out, she has no time or energy for anything else so she needs a whole lot of servants to do everything else for her, including baby sitting. His job is to keep her fertilised. Seems a bit sexist to me. Once again, there is a lack of information on the love aspects of this relationship. Heck, they probably don’t have any energy left for romantic dinners and date nights. Divorce I believe is entirely unknown to them.
Homes can be as varied as they are for people, depending on where you live and what your extended family habits are. Some are huge, complex condominiums. The biggest can be as much as 9 metres high with chimneys, pinnacles and ridges. The tallest mound, 12.8 metres, was found in the Congo. And of course a lot of the mound is underground. Termites don’t like daylight. Temperature control is another must have feature. ‘The shape and orientation of the mounds of the Australian compass termite stabilises their internal temperatures during the day. As the towers heat up, the solar chimney effect (stack effect) creates an updraft of air within the mound. Wind blowing across the tops of the towers enhances the circulation of air through the mounds, which also include side vents in their construction.’
Travel between various sites is through mud tunnels made from soil and faeces. Yuk! We found one little one in our house. Because the wood munching varieties use clever guerrilla tactics their presence is not normally found until damage has already occurred. Of the 3,106 known species only 83 cause significant damage to wooden structures. 16 of these are in Australia. Once again Africa comes tops with 24.
.The workers are – well, the workers. They are the ones munching our house. It’s their job to feed their buddies. They regurgitate the digested food from one end or t’other. I know which I would prefer! If the nest is as far as 70 metres away it takes 72 hours for just one food delivery. I almost feel sorry for them. However, it is thought that they are a major source (11%) of greenhouse gases which are a by-product of the breakdown of cellulose, their major food source. Hmmph!
Protection of the nest is the job of the soldiers. It turns out some species have ranks. What I couldn’t find out is what sort of basic training they are required to do and how they advance in rank. Perhaps it’s a secret known only to the Termitoidae. What I did find though is that some soldier ants actually suicide in defence of their colony. Is that where kamikaze and hari-kari originated? Cannibalism is also practised in some colonies.
Like people, termites start life as an egg. After this any further resemblance to human growth ceases to exist. An incomplete cycle of metamorphosis sifts and sorts the babies into the different casts. It gets a bit complicated so let’s just take that for granted. They seem to have it sorted given they’ve been doing it for millennia. Suffice it to say to reach maturation can take months. Like if there’s a famine, if it’s too hot or too cold, or if the balance of the castes is out of whack.
Because termites are blind, they work under cover. Perhaps they were the ones to develop guerrilla warfare. Communication is through scent which they squirt out of various orifices – trail, alarm and sex sniffs.
Now here’s an interesting bit of trivia. ‘Some species of termite practice fungiculture. They maintain a “garden” of specialised fungi of genus Termitomyces, which are nourished by the excrement of the insects. When the fungi are eaten, their spores pass undamaged through the intestines of the termites to complete the cycle by germinating in the fresh faecal pellets. Molecular evidence suggests that the family Macrotermitinae developed agriculture about 31 million years ago. It is assumed that more than 90 percent of dry wood in the semiarid savannah ecosystems of Africa and Asia are reprocessed by these termites. Originally living in the rainforest, fungus farming allowed them to colonise the African savannah and other new environments, eventually expanding into Asia.’
Because there’s gajillions of the little munchers they are a major food source for a lot of other animals. One species alone has been found in the guts of 65 bird species and 19 mammals. Ants are their biggest predators. Some ants mount kill, destroy, eat raids against termites. Others take termites as captives – a source of live food harvesting for those times when you need a munch and there’s nothing else in the larder. Many different cultures around the world eat them too or feed them to livestock. Word is that they are high in nutrition with adequate levels of fat and protein with a pleasant, nutty flavour after being cooked.
Some scientists have been inspired to investigate termites as an alternative source of fuel that is cleaner and renewable. ‘Termites are efficient bioreactors, capable of producing two litres of hydrogen from a single sheet of paper. Approximately 200 species of microbes live inside the termite hindgut, releasing the hydrogen that was trapped inside wood and plants that they digest.Through the action of unidentified enzymes in the termite gut, lignocellulose polymers are broken down into sugars and are transformed into hydrogen. The bacteria within the gut turns the sugar and hydrogen into cellulose acetate, an acetate ester of cellulose on which termites rely for energy.’
Well, I never!! Got to give it to the little munchers. They are clever. But I still don’t want them eating my home! A counter-offensive attack is in the process of being formulated. It’s highly confidential at this rate. We don’t want word to get out to the King and Queen of Termitoidae.
© Raili Tanska