Is there is such a thing as a ‘good’ termite? This article will reveal the little known good side of these insects, what gets them in our bad books, and how homeowners unwittingly invite termites into their homes.
Most termites are good guys
Termites are the ultimate recyclers.
Over 2000 species of termites can be found between latitude 50°N and 50°S, and more than 90% of these would never consider your home a tasty snack. Some termite species farm their own mushrooms and about half of all termite species actually eat dirt. The rest are miniature wood-digesting ‘machines’ that specialize in recycling of dead trees in forests. A termite first shreds wood with its powerful jaws, and swallows the lot. In its gut, an enzyme-rich soup breaks down the wood fibers and releases energy that the termite uses. The end result is fertile termite poo returned to Mother Nature, and less dead wood lying around that could fuel forest fires.
Termites provide sustenance.
Termites are an important part of the food chain. Ants, birds, geckos, aardvarks and chimps eat them. Some African tribespeople feast on lightly-roasted termites, which have a nutty flavor and are rich in fat. In some parts of Asia, the termite queen is traditionally sought after and eaten live to cure asthma. And a delicious fungus that grows only from mounds of the mushroom-farming termites mentioned above.
Which houses taste good to which termites?
If you are living in the USA, the name of your termite invader is likely
Reticulitermes flavipes, which is the most widely distributed native species. It is a subterranean termite species, building underground nests with galleries that go for hundreds of feet to food (wood). There are also some drywood and dampwood pest termites, which are not covered here. Isopterists (entomologists who are termite experts) and trained pest control people can identify termites by looking at the actual critter or examining its poo. How to know if you have a termite problem? If you see termite wings on your window sills, it’s time to call in the experts. It’s also worth keeping in mind that carpenter ants, carpenter bees or some wood-boring beetle could be the guilty critter and correct identification of the culprit is needed before attempting any pest control method. (And by the way, termites are not ‘white’ ants!).
Houses that are tasty termite treats
To understand what makes a house susceptible to termites, some knowledge of termite basic needs is useful. From a termite’s viewpoint, food (wood), water and warmth are the most tempting things your home can offer. Such conditions could assist survival of a newly mated pair of termites looking for a nuptial chamber to start their own colony, or could support the expansionist tendencies of a resident termite colony. Wood buried in the ground or wood piles on the property are a princely termite banquet that could grow a great many healthy termite colonies. (Think ‘Termite Incubator’). Moist mulch spread thickly around your house foundation rolls out a red carpet leading termites right to your doorstep. Although these termites can feed on wood that is aboveground, e.g., a house, they must maintain contact with the soil (for moisture). So they build shelter tubes using soil, poo, chewed-up wood, and saliva, creating a safe passage as they scurry to their next meal. An unnoticed crack in your foundation could also give termites access to timber joists. Termite invasions like this can go undetected for years because the critters can honeycomb wood while retaining a thin ‘all is well’ wood façade.
Don’t panic! (yet)
Having possibly just realized that the horrifying termite swarms around your home may have come from the ‘Termite Incubator’ in your yard… Or that the strange teeny rustling sounds that seemed (implausibly) to resonate from within your walls could be the hundreds of thousands of termites devaluing your real estate… Do not despair. The second scenario would indeed be rare, and while the first scenario is more likely, the bulk of termite swarms quickly end up in the bellies of predators. There are plenty of common-sense measures that informed homeowners can undertake to protect their most important investment, and environmentally-friendly options are increasingly available for eradicating detected pest termites. I'll cover this in another post so keep tuned!
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