A common sight when walking through the jungle are these things resembling dirt clods in the trees. They come in all sizes and shapes but they are the homes of termites. The nests are not mud like you may expect but a paperlike material called "carton" made out of a mixture of digested wood and termite fecal matter. In other words they are a bunch of crap! Carton is essentially a glue, and strong enough and waterproof enough to ge used to repair wooden boats (the carton is powdered and water added to it). Older fishermen say the the carton-repaired area of a boat was always more watertight and stronger than the original wood.
Have you ever closely observed the tree-dwelling termites that
live in those giant dark-brown, elliptical nests? The scientific
name of these creatures is Nasutitermes. In some places they are commonly
called wood lice or wood ants or simply termites. Our Latin friends
call them comejen. (Another
species, called subterranean termites, are around, but
their nests are built underground and you usually don't see them
until they start eating up things in your house.)
Termites are "social" insects. The survival of the colony
depends on the specialized services of three distinct castes, workers,
soldiers and reproductives, which make up termite society. Two of
these castes, workers and soldiers are readily observable the year
round. The third caste, reproductives, live deep within the nest,
and you usually only get to see them one time a year after the first
big rain in the fall, when they develop wings and fly away from
the nest in their attempt to establish new colonies.
To observe members of the soldier and worker castes, simply make
a hole in a termite nest with a stick or other sharp object or brush
away a small section of a termite trail. Soldier termites will rush
out and crawl all over the disturbed area. The soldiers are light
brown in color with dark mahogany-colored heads that end in a pointed
proboscis. The workers quickly disappear back inside the nest or
the trail, but will return a few minutes later to begin repairing
the damage. The workers are lighter in color than the soldiers,
have a larger abdomen, and their heads are more rounded, lacking
the protruding proboscis.
The termite nest, or termitarium, is constructed by the worker
termites out of chewed up and partially digested wood, which they
cement together using their own saliva and feces. The termitarium
consists of a complex maze of tunnels, passageways, and chambers.
Nasutitermes nests can be quite large, reaching more than seven
feet in length and four feet in width. An extensive tunnel system
leads away from the nest, down the tree trunk, and along and under
the ground. These tunnels, or galleries, can extend outward as much
as a football field's length away from the home nest. The covered
trails provide the blind and sun-sensitive workers access to food
The worker termites are sterile females. Not only are they in charge
of the building and repair of nests and trails, but they also locate,
obtain, and provide food and water for all the other members of
the termite colony.
Wood lice, as their name suggests, subsist on wood, usually obtained
from broken branches and dead trees in the forest. They will also
eat lumber, if it has not been treated with an anti-termite chemical,
as well as other wood products such as paper or cardboard. Only
rarely does this species eat the healthy wood of live trees.
Wood is not an easy food to digest, even for a termite. In order
to accomplish this feat termites enlist the services of microorganisms
that have the ability to break down the thick cellulose walls of
wood cells and convert them into simpler and more digestible substances.
In return, the microorganisms are provided with abundant raw materials
in the form of chewed up wood as well as a nice safe place to live
within the termite's intestinal tract. This mutually beneficial
relationship is an example of the partnership that biologists call
Termites are not born with these microorganisms living inside them.
They obtain them by a process called proctodeal feeding, whereby
a young termite feeds on the liquid intestinal contents taken from
the anal aperture of an older termite. The symbiotic microorganisms
are contained in the intestinal material.
Once the chewed wood has had a chance to be broken down chemically
with the aid of the microorganisms in the worker termite's intestines,
the workers travel throughout the termitarium in order to feed the
termite larvae, and the members of the other termite castes. The
predigested food is then either regurgitated or excreted and presented
to the patiently waiting recipients.
The soldier caste consists of sterile males dedicated to the security
and defense of the colony. Their greatest military expertise comes
in the form of chemical warfare. The soldiers have the ability to
shoot out a sticky and strong-smelling chemical from the pointy
proboscis located at the tip of their heads. This secretion can
trap and poison small termite enemies, such as ants. Larger predators,
such as birds and lizards are deterred by the irritating qualities
of the chemical as well as by its disagreeable odor and taste. (If
you have already experimented with disturbing tree lice nests or
trails, you probably have experienced the turpentine-like odor of
the soldier's chemical weaponry.)
The role of the termite king and queen, the most monogamous creatures
In late summer the reproductive castes of St. John termites begin
their preparation to leave their nest for the first and only time
in their lives. They develop wings to fly with and compound eyes
to give them the temporary sense of sight, which they will need
in the vast and perilous world outside the confines of the termitarium.
They also change from their usual pale color to a dark brown, the
newly acquired pigment being necessary to protect them from the
light of day. The transformed reproductives, now called alates,
wait for the signal that will coordinate an airborne exodus of alates
from all the different colonies in the area.
The awaited sign comes in the form of the first big rain in autumn.
When the rain stops and the sun sets, the alates fly off en masse
into the night sky. Termites are not strong flyers, and their flight,
although slow and drifting, is generally adequate enough to put
a modest amount of distance between them and their home nest. The
flying termites tend to be attracted by lights, which is why you
may come home some night after a big rain and see hundreds of winged
insects swarming around a lighted area or crawling around your floor.
Upon landing, their wings fall off and it is possible that you will
not see any bugs at all, but will find piles of insect wings strewn
Outside their nest the termites are defenseless. They are easy and
ready prey for any creature who finds them appetizing. The mass
swarming of the termites, however, acts to overwhelm these predators,
who can eat only so many of the little delicacies leaving the survivors
with the opportunity to complete their one and only mission in life,
which is to reproduce.
The unusually hard rainfall that signals the mass departure is an
event that all termites in a given area will experience at the same
time, thus increasing the probability that termites from one nest
will mate with termites from another nest. This is crucial for the
well being of the species, because the residents of each individual
nest are most likely descended from the same king and queen, making
them brothers and sisters, relatives too closely related for healthy
The airborne journey is just the beginning of the termite romance.
After the termites land and shed their wings, they pair off into
male and female couples. The female leads the way while her love
struck partner follows close behind. Together they search for the
location of their future home, which will most likely be a crack
or defect in a tree trunk or branch. The couple will then work together
to make a hole in the wood. When the excavation is large enough,
they will seal off the entrance with their feces. The humble hollowed
out section of tree now becomes a royal bedchamber where the two
previously undistinguished termites will live together as king and
queen until death do they part".
The royal couple then mate, and the first eggs are laid. The eggs
hatch into tiny larvae, which have the capability of developing
into workers, soldiers, or reproductives. The destiny of the larvae
is determined by such factors as diet, time of year, and the introduction
of a chemical called a pheromone. This important chemical is produced
by the queen. It is excreted through her anus and imparted to the
recipient termites when they groom the queen with their mouths.
Pheromones are also responsible for the attraction of male and female
termites to each other at mating time, for communication, and for
trail marking, so that the blind workers and soldiers can find their
way through the complex maze of trails and passageways in and around
Tropical termite queens can become quite large and may measure
as much as four inches long. The termite queen is well taken care
of by her comparatively tiny king, who spends most of his life feeding
and licking her. The queen can remain fertile for as long as twenty-five
years, and as she gets older and larger, she may lay thousands of
eggs per day.
Many people see termites as their enemies because the termites can
eat up their houses or wooden furniture. Termites, however, are
not without redeeming value. Their excrement accumulates in certain
areas of the nest or trails and is periodically pushed out through
holes made especially for that purpose. The excrement is rich in
nitrogen and thus plays an important part in the fertilization of
the forest soil. Termites are also helpful in preventing forest
fires, as they eat up dead trees that could become highly combustible
in dry weather. This is the reason that they are sometimes called
nature's fire fighters. (On the negative side, however, the immense
scope of their wood consumption and digestion is responsible for
a considerable amount of methane production, which contributes to
the greenhouse effect and global warming.)
Termites are also a popular food for anteaters, monkeys and even humans!
I know our social conditioning and what you may have read here may make
that sound repulsive, but in actuality, termites resemble carrots in their flavor!
So what ever your opinion of termites are and how they may have caused
you some serious problems in your own life, you have to admit that all
in all, they live a pretty crappy life from start to finish to make this
world a better place. That HAS to count for something!