Termites: Nature's Unexpected Helpers

Feb 16, 2015 By Aarathi
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Termites, one of the most common household pests, can cause huge damages with their voracious appetites.

They build and live in large underground systems of tunnels, from where they emerge to feed on wood and other cellulose-based materials.

Recently, scientists have found that these termite mounds might just be curbing the spread of deserts. The destructive critters seem to have a secret reconstructive side too!

The World Of Termites

Termites are small, light-colored insects rather like ants, but closely related to the cockroach family. Over 2750 species have been identified in tropical and temperate regions all over the world.

They live in huge colonies numbering several hundred or even millions at times. Like ants and bees, each colony splits duties amongst its members - the ‘workers’ and ‘soldiers’ protect the reproductive king and queen and care for the young ones (nymphs).

Termites primarily feed on cellulose, which is found in plant matter including wood. That’s how termite infestations weaken buildings – the insects simply eat away the foundations! And unfortunately, they can go undetected for a very long time. Their colonies thrive in large underground networks of tunnels, from where they surface in search of food.

No one can deny though that the termites have an important role in nature since they help recycle wood and plant materials. This, in turn, becomes the nutrient matter that supports new growth.

Slowing The Spread Of Deserts

When fertile tracts of land are weakened by deforestation, drought, or poor agricultural methods, they tend to become dry and arid deserts. This desertification process is being tracked by researchers all over the world based on satellite images of the vegetation. Not surprisingly, dry areas around existing deserts are more vulnerable to the spread of desertification.

Then came in some unexpected news - researchers from the University of Princeton found that dry-lands that hosted termite colonies actually reported higher levels of vegetation than normal. Desertification was much slower, and so conservation efforts had a greater chance of restoring the land. Could this be linked to termites?

It turns out that the underground termite networks are doing a remarkable job of aerating the soil from within. These tunnels are actually large stores of moisture and nutrients due to all the termite activity. The plants above ground could tap into these stores if rains were poor. The mounds literally function as alternate oases. In fact, researchers have explained that these tunnels could even preserve seeds and plant life. So, vegetation would bounce back quicker.

This discovery has triggered interest in other animals such as ants, prairie dogs, gophers which also build mounds in their ecosystems.