Termites are useful as well as destructive

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11170396951548.jpg’, ‘Photo courtesy of fusionanomaly.net’, ‘Termites live mostly in warm regions, many species of which feed on wood, often destroying trees and wooden structures. ‘);

About this time of the year, termites and certain species of ants get the urge to reproduce and leave their nests on nuptial flights. During the rest of the year, only sterile workers and soldiers are created by the termite queen in her subterranean chambers. Once a year, however, in the late spring she produces a brood of winged males and females. These are the reproductive individuals that leave the nest in swarms, disperse, mate, and form new colonies. A new colony is established by a single pair of these individuals.

As noted, several species of ants (ants are placed in a more advanced order of insects than termites) engage in the same type of swarming activity as termites, and many homeowners become upset—as well they should be—when they observe these flying insects about their houses.

Termites have the antennae or feelers composed of many similar bead-like segments, whereas in ants the first segment of each antenna is much longer than the other segments, and the entire structure is conspicuously “elbowed.”

The two pairs of wings of the termite are equal in size and shape while the hind pair of wings of the ant are distinctly smaller than the front pair. Also, it will be noted that the abdomen of a termite is broadly joined to the thorax (just behind the rear pair of legs). Ants have the abdomen joined to the thorax by a narrow, fragile-appearing, thread-like segment

Everyone knows the destructive nature of termites when they attack houses and other wooden structures, thereby causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage each year. In this respect, only pest control operators can love this insect as termite control and eradication form the “bread and butter” of a very large industry. Not so well known, however, is the fact these insects make considerable positive contributions to the environment and man’s well-being.

Termites are among the few groups of animals that are capable of digesting wood, and they use this ability to aid one of the most important cycles in the natural world. When plants grow, they take valuable materials from the earth and use them in their own type of physiology. When plants die, they slowly decompose and soften with the aid of bacteria and fungi, and many of the valuable elements are eventually returned to the soil. However, when dead trees remain standing, the wood hardens, and the organisms of decay cannot attack them so readily, and the earth is deprived of the things it needs to be rich and fertile.

Such trees are not, however, immune to attack by termites, and the small lumberjacks and efficient recyclers eat their way into the hard wood, quickly causing the trees to fall to the ground where the microorganisms can go to work on them. Without termites, many dead trees would stand upright for years, preventing new forest growth and withholding essential elements from the environment.

For many years, it was not known how the primitive termite was able to digest cellulose (the complex carbohydrate that makes up wood). Then it was discovered that the process is accomplished by tiny one-celled protozoans living in the termite’s intestine. These tiny organisms have the capacity to break down cellulose into simple sugars that are readily digested by the termite. This arrangement is a classical example of the biological phenomenon known as symbiosis, where two organisms are so intimately dependent on another one cannot exist without the other. The gut of the termite gives the protozoans an oxygen-free environment that they require to live, and they, in turn, provide the termite with a constant source of nourishment.

Termites serve as a valuable source of food for many other animals including man. In parts of Africa and Australia, they are relished by members of primitive tribes.

As far as humans are concerned, there is a good and a bad side to almost every animal; though sometimes we have to look carefully to recognize the good side.

From the May 25-31, 2005, issue

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!