What are Termites?

What are termites? Termites are usually considered to be a big pest to humans. Termites are considered to be a pest to humans for good reason. It is estimated that termites can cause Americans $1 billion dollars a year in damages. Despite being wood eating, destructive, pests they are fascinating little insects.

Termites have been around for more than 240 million years. Termites are small insects that eat wood. They adapt to ever changing environments. All types of termites maintain highly structured social orders. By achieving cooperation among themselves they can hollow huge trees, move massive amounts of soil, and of course cause damage to your house.

A group of termites is known as a colony. Termites have different jobs within the colony. These are commonly referred to as castes. A termite can be a worker, soldier, winged termite, king or queen. Worker termites do what their name suggests. They are the manual labor of the colony. They take care of the young termites, as well as the building and upkeep of the colony. Soldier termites have only one responsibility, which is to defend the colony at all costs. They attack any intruders, especially their number one enemy; ants. When the queen can no longer meet the demand for increasing the colonies numbers, winged termites act as backup offspring producers. The soldier and worker termites do not sexually reproduce. A termite colony can not exist without both the king and queen.

If you noticed that a termite colony sounds like an ant colony, you are correct. The caste system and organized efforts of each individual for the good of the colony are all attributes termites share with ants. However, termites and ants are not related. Termites are actually genetically closer to cockroaches. In a sense, termites are wood eating, highly socialized cockroaches. As mentioned above, termites and ants are mortal enemies.

Another fascinating attribute of termites is; they can't digest the wood they eat. The termites rely on tiny microbes to do this for them. Our environment is filled with microorganisms. Generally speaking, microorganisms can wreak havoc. They are responsible for infections and spoiling food. Termites, on the other hand, have learned to leverage the power of microorganisms. They use the microorganisms to provide them food rather than spoil it. Without the aid of these microorganisms termites would not be able to digest the wood they eat.

Termites are only considered as destructive in man's eye. Within nature, they serve very legitimate purposes. Termites are nature's way of getting wood broken down and returning the nutrients back to the soil. Termites also provide food and shelter for countless other types of organisms as they hollow out and break down dead and dying trees. They also by tunneling aerate the soil for regeneration and future growth.

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By Frank Reece. Page last modified Nov. 10, 2008.

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