Termites are the worlds tiniest gold prospectors. These strict vegetarians fight against droughts and their mounds help land recover faster after droughts, and new research suggests they slow up the spread of deserts. Termites are the only animals that have managed to build an air-conditioning system without electricity.
They are friends to the environment and have a range of astounding capabilities to positively benefit humans, animals and plants. Termites are essential in the functioning of our planet and key players in habitat protection.
Termites are multi-taskers who harvest and break down dead vegetation and live self sufficiently in architectural masterpieces with air conditioning. They cannot tolerate sunlight and some of them are even blind but what they achieve in their sunless secret lives is astounding.
“The main one that we know about is Nasutitermes triodiae, which is the one that builds those wonderful big mounds. That’s a harmless one which gathers grass and stores it in its little cells that it builds in its nest,” says Australian author Pat Lowe who is adamant that termites are more beneficial than destructive.
The house eating termite is only one species in over 3,000 species. Lowe says “Most termites are actually working hard to the benefit of people and the environment. Many of them just live harmlessly underground doing good things such as bringing up minerals and so on from under the ground to the surface, aerating the soil like worms and turning it over so that it mixes up all of the ingredients of the soil.”
“People sometimes eat some of the mound, especially pregnant women and some children. I think it’s to do with a shortage of certain minerals in their diet.” According to Aboriginal women, Lowe says eating termite mounds is said to relieve morning sickness.
The termite colony is pretty much 50-50 males and females, brothers and sisters. A defining characteristic of termites is their ability not to resort to panic when disturbed. They don’t start pushing and shoving, or clambering over the fallen. No matter how much upheaval is placed upon them, termites remain orderly and are guided by soldiers. That unfailing etiquette distinguishes termites from ants.
Termites are the original farmers and called ultimate soil engineers. They know to correctly align their mounds with the correlation of the sun’s light to minimize exposure to the sun and maximize temperature control.
In comparison to the Empire State Building in New York, termite mounds are approximately 25 times higher and are built to last, with no technical devices used in their building. Researchers are only just starting to understand the termites role in the eco-system and how we can learn from their perfect social system. Their nests are architectural masterpieces that rise up to eight meters from the ground and dispose brood chambers for larvae, corridors for transportation, fungal gardens for nutrition and even emergency exits for hostile attacks [Inner Sanctum.]
Termites Fight Against Droughts
Researchers at Princeton University found that vegetation grew more easily in areas surrounding the mounds, but these mounds also contributed to recovery after periods of hard drought, as the mounds keep dormant seeds protected. Even when you get to harsh conditions where vegetation disappears from the mounds, re-vegetation is still easier. As long as the mounds are there the ecosystem has a better chance to recover.
The Princeton study demonstrates that termite mounds create important refugia for plants and help to protect vast landscapes in Africa from the effects of drought, which clearly shows that not all termites are pests.
Even when you see desertification start to happen between the mounds, the vegetation on or around the mounds is doing so well it will keep reseeding the environment, says a member of the Princeton team.
Because termites largely populate quite dry, inhospitable regions, adaptation to deal with the little water available has been essential for them to succeed as colonists of these marginal areas.
Some termites can also create water in their mounds by condensation. Coptotermes brunneus, found in the northwest of Australia, builds huge high mounds sealed on the outside with impermeable clay. The upper sections consist of bulbous cavities connected by vertical tunnels to live-in chambers underground.
Metabolic water from these chambers will rise as water vapour to the top of the mound and condense back into water once exposed to the outer layer which is quite susceptible to temperature change during the nights (in desert regions the temperature can drop by 12 degrees Celcius). This water will then drain into the base of the upper cavities ready to be collected by the termites.
Its not yet known how big the biomass of termite methane is so or in what way they contribute to global warming. Some people say that termites methane flatulence, combined with their staggering numbers, is said to be responsible for approximately 4% of the worldwide total. If not for the massive proliferation of cows, sheep, and other ruminants intended for human consumption, termites would be the main animal source of methane in our atmosphere.
The base of the termites’ diet is formed by cellulose, which they procure either from wood or dead grassy vegetation. Once ingested the wood is softened, then shredded and the fibers are then squeezed on until they reach a special gut which breaks down the cellulose, otherwise termites would starve.
Termites Are The Original Farmers
Termites create fresh access holes to come and go which are then sealed up during the day when the termites are no longer active.
Termites radiate up to 35 meters from their nest and a single nest can have 6 kilometers of tunnels.
The termite’s job is very important because they remove dead grass and dirty litter which removes the threat of catastrophic fires in dry seasons.
The dead grass and dirty litter is eaten back at the nest and can last them up to 10 days, before foraging another harvest.
The University Of Copenhagen say they have proved that termites are ahead of us by millions of years with their sustainable fungus farms. This study is of importance to the field of mineral cycling and decomposition.
It is believed that 30 million years ago termites became dependent on farming their own food when they cultivated African Termitomyces mushrooms. Since their single rainforest origin in Africa, they are now comprised of about 330 species.
Colony-founding termite queens and kings do not normally get their own garden until they have raised their first workers. The workers then collect Termitomyces spores whilst foraging, and defecate plant material in the nest for the spores to flourish.
The symbiosis between mushroom and termite is stable, strangely enough, despite the genetic varieties of the mushroom. The team genetically analysed colonies that had based their gardens on two or more genetically different spores, and found that they contained only a single fungal genotype.
The most prevalent fungal types had merged with their identical neighbors, eventually becoming the only kind in the garden. After that, they produce asexual spores that the termites eat and excrete for new garden material. This process results in each colony having a lifelong commitment to a single breed of mushroom.
Termites have also been implicated in the evolution of modern angiosperm trees, as well as the development of red-tropical clays that may require the extreme alkaline conditions in the termite gut to form. The world would be a very different place without them.
Termites Poop Gold Nuggets in Australian Goldfields
Termites could be pressed into service as tiny gold miners, say researchers, who have found them excreting miniature nuggets in their mounds.
Analysis of termite mounds at a test site in the West Australian goldfields showed high concentrations of gold, giving a pointer to the larger deposits beneath. “We’re using insects to help find new gold and other mineral deposits,” says the CSIRO.
“These resources are becoming increasingly hard to find because much of the Australian landscape is covered by a layer of eroded material that masks what’s going on deeper underground.” But termites burrow down into this layer, and bring traces of gold to the surface.
“The insects bring up small particles that contain gold from the deposit’s fingerprint, or halo, and effectively stockpile it in their mounds.”
“Although the insects may not concentrate metals in their bodies, they actively rid their bodies of excess metals. This process shows up as little stones, much like kidney stones in people. This finding is important because these excretions are a driving force in redistribution of metals near the surface.”
After 150 years of mining in Australia, pretty much all the gold near the surface has been discovered. Termites could make for a low-cost and environmentally friendly alternative to drilling.
Termite Poop Has Antibacterial Properties
The gut bacteria of soil-feeding termites help make soil nitrogen available to plants and protects from ammonia toxicity via ammonia volatilization and mineralization.
Recent investigations have shown that termite poop has antibacterial properties and it is used to protect themselves against various fungi and bacteria. Scientists say bacteria in these insects’ droppings secrete compounds that are surprisingly effective in fighting back various microorganisms, such as the microorganisms people usually resort to in order to clear their homes of termites in an environmentally friendly way. Researchers theorize this is the reason that often attempts to exterminate termites using biological warfare end in failure.
According to Live Science, “By manipulating their environment with the use of feces, termites promote the growth of such beneficial microbes.”
Humans also have beneficial bacteria inside their guts. However, unlike termites, we cannot use them for much else except keep ourselves safe from bacteria we might ingest together with our food. While we have beneficial bacteria inside ourselves, termites were able to partially export them outside.
On a human scale the large termite towers would be 1,700 meters high. Great heights are needed to get the ventilation system to work efficiently.
The denser and higher the trees, the taller the mounds get. Colonies construct new vents during the cool of nighttime.
When building a mound, tens of thousands of workers bring up clay and water from deep underground, mixing the clay in their jaws from water they carry in their body. To find water they may dig down to the ground water up to 60 meters below surface level. The work is hectic, orderly and never stops.
Breath of a termite colony is nearly as warm as a mammals and super saturated with moisture, reflecting the internal climate of the nest.
Vents can be seen steaming after showers of rain.
Different species choose different ways to ventilate their mounds, from top holes to bottom holes, with the high holes sucking air into the low holes. To live in dry hot climates termites need air conditioning so termites create their own climate control in the termite mounds.
They supply water by bringing up moisture from the water table to create their own climate control in the mound. The termite mound’s vent also expels waste gasses such as carbon dioxide and methane.
The typical termite mound must accommodate millions of inhabitants together with their fungus gardens. Termites cannot digest the cellulose from the wood that they collect so they use the wood as a food for fungus to grow on & then eat the fungus. These fungus gardens need a stable environment in which to grow and so constant humidity and temperature is a must.
A typical mound needs to ‘breathe’ 1000 liters of fresh air per day. Recent research has demonstrated that the real ventilation is driven through the walls of the termite mound which are porous. Termite mounds tap turbulence in the gusts of wind that hit them.
A single breath of wind contains small eddies and currents that vary with speed & direction with different frequencies. As the range of frequencies changes from gust to gust, the boundary between the stale air in the nest and the fresh air from outside moves about within the mounds’ walls, allowing the two bodies of air to be exchanged. In essence, the mound functions as a giant lung.
Many termite mounds are red on one side and white on the other side, which occurs from using different soils. They bring minerals and move soil and earth worms around the mound, which improves the soil around the mound.
Termites are good garbage disposers – if you put unwanted clothes on a termite mound they eat them.
By poking holes, or macropores, as they dig through the ground, termites allow rain to soak deep into the soil rather than running off or evaporating. Termites artfully mix inorganic particles of sand, stone and clay with organic bits of leaf litter, discarded exoskeletons that helps the soil retain nutrients and resist erosion.
The stickiness of a termite’s feces and other bodily excretions lend structure and coherence to the soil, which also prevents erosion. Bacteria in the termite’s gut are avid nitrogen fixaters, able to extract the vital element from the air and convert it into a usable sort of fertilizer, benefiting the termite host and the vast underground economy.
The largest African mounds can measure 30 feet high and 80 feet across, and house millions to tens of millions of termites. The mounds are refugia for plants, fungi and large herbivores, too. In Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park, antelope like bushbuck and kudu often congregate around termite mounds, and not just for the grazing opportunities. The mounds are cooler in the heat of day and warmer at night.
In Lichfield National Park, Northern Territory, Australia, magnetic termite mounds are aligned north to south to minimize exposure to the sun and maximize temperature control. Some of the mounds stand up to 4 metes tall [12 foot tall.]
Termites create fresh access holes each day to came and go and then workers seal up the holes each day. Termites radiate up to 35 meters from their nest and a single nest can have 6 kilometers of tunnels. Away from the nest they remove dead grass and dirty litter which is an important job because termites remove the threat of catastrophic fires in dry seasons.
The dead grass and dirty litter is eaten back at the nest and can last them for 10 days before they set off again to forage another harvest.
Workers from another termite species eject chewed cellulose as raw feces which is later used to farm a fungus garden, or comb, inside the nest, over several weeks. Layer on layer of feces form a fungus comb, which produces white spores which workers swallow and excrete with more feces, which enriches the fungus. This is the main source of food for all the termites in the mound and guarantees the existence of an entire termite species and it all depends on temperature and humidity being exactly right.
The fungus must be kept at exactly 87 degrees F, while the temperatures outside range from 35 degrees F at night to 104 degrees F during the day. The termites achieve this remarkable feat by constantly opening and closing a series of heating and cooling vents throughout the mound over the course of the day.
With a system of carefully adjusted convection currents, air is sucked in at the lower part of the mound, down into enclosures with muddy walls, and up through a channel to the peak of the termite mound. The industrious termites constantly dig new vents and plug up old ones in order to regulate the temperature.
In tropical zones the biomass of termites is immense. Where ground surface is uneven for termites to harvest food stocks, they build roads, bridges and tunnels with sand and earth gathered from the forest floor; this doubles as termite concrete. Transportation workers lay ‘ferramone trails’ to regulate the traffic in an orderly fashion. Tunnels have one lane in each direction.
Workers cut up dried leaves to take to the nest and what they leave behind rots and helps new plant growth on the forest floor. Cutting up dried leaves is hard work and takes two hours solid work to make a leaf disappear.
Harvest and transportation workers know when it is time to head back to the nest, carrying their raw material. A harvest is usually half a kilogram of raw plant material which will last them 10 days.
The biggest risk from being outside the nest is dehydration so sunny spots must be crossed as fast as possible because if they are in the sun too long they boil. Neither can their thin skins cope with cold fog or rain. Once back at base the colony will stay underground for 10 days, processing the harvest and tending to the brood.
Termites success can be measured in the millions of tons because termites comprise as much as 10% of the total biomass of all the world’s land animals. The only insects more massive and numerous than the termites are the ants, which are termites mortal enemy. To protect their colonies, the termites evolved a caste of soldiers with highly specialized weapons. Some termite soldiers can spray acidic toxins from their foreheads, others use enormous jaws to destroy invaders, while other have heads so large that they block tunnels and prevent ant invasions.
Soldiers usually face outward, sniffing for danger.
The big body caste soldier termites head is converted into a chemical gun, which can spray toxic acid at its enemy.
Antenas constantly scan the air for danger because forests are full of risk.
Soldiers guard the doors of the mound and allow workers to come in and dab cement to repair holes. Soldier termites, like most of the millions in a large colony, are completely sterile. They exist only to protect the colony and are fed by the much more numerous workers. Both of these termite castes work their entire lives to ensure the reproductive success of their queen (or queens), around which the entire colony is built.
Termites regulate the flow of gases to ensure the Queen’s chamber stays at 30 degrees centigrade and 100% humidity.
When termite mounds are excavated, termites disappear deep underground as if there were never there to begin with. But one group cannot move and have no where to go – this is the Queen who lives in the Queen’s Chamber in the inner sanctum.
The termite Queen is the mother of everyone in a city numbering one million; she is the super organism. When hole is made in her inner sanctum chamber, the queen’s attendants immediately begin walling up the damage to restore temperature control. Located deep down in the nest, her workers have plenty of water ready to produce instant cement.
Soldiers with powerful jaws and ready to repel intruders, guard the shrinking gap as the queens workers rebuild the wall.
The queen’s inner sanctum is the very source of a colony’s life.
Termite queens live for as long as 50 years and become more fertile each year. A mature termite queen’s body is mostly reproductive organs, allowing her to lay one egg every ten to fifteen seconds. In addition to turning out new workers and soldiers, she produces winged immature queens (called alates) that fly from the colony in tremendous numbers. The alates have a survival strategy based on predator satiation; in other words, so many of them are produced that predators can not possibly eat them all.
Those few that survive may then form new colonies of their own, producing millions of offspring throughout their long lives. All eggs are born equal and whether they turn into workers or soldiers depends on the food their given to eat.
Termites Are Snack Food In Liberia
Dead termites are spread out on mats, then stored for eating at another time. Nothing edible was ever wasted in Liberia, whether it was meat flying, meat running, meat swimming or meat crawling.
Across America, Australia and parts of Europe and Asia, getting rid of termites is big business which doesn’t guarantee success.
Green Building In Zimabawe Modeled After Termite Mounds
The Eastgate Centre in Zimabawe uses less than 10% of the energy of a conventional building its size. These efficiencies translate directly to the bottom line: Eastgate’s owners have saved $3.5 million alone because of an air-conditioning system that did not have to be implemented. Outside of being eco-efficient and better for the environment, these savings also trickle down to the tenants whose rents are 20 percent lower than those of occupants in the surrounding buildings.
Who would have guessed that the replication of designs created by termites would not only provide for a sound climate control solution but also be the most cost-effective way for humans to function in an otherwise challenging context?
The following video is an excellent coverage of a day in the life of termites:
Termites are fascinating multi-taskers who are quite happy doing their own thing, in their secret lifestyle. We have many lessons to learn from termites, from their orderly way of going about things, to their lack of panic when pressured, and their remarkable self sufficiency. If termites hold the answer to droughts and containing the spread of deserts, surely termites deserve our respect. More research needs to be conducted about termite colonies for us as humans to improve the way we do things and treat others on this beautiful planet, earth.
Thank you for reading,