African Termites

An account of the African termite and it's significant value to the environment.

When most people hear the word "termite", they automatically think about their destructive qualities. Unfortunately these soft-bodied insects have a negative reputation that precedes it, and many people do not know much about their ecological importance. The only love lost over this species is generally from an entomologist, or from the few that have acquired a taste for this squirmy dose of protein. It is estimated that there are more than 2500 different species of termites worldwide. It is the Australian and African species that erect impressive nesting mounds. On the sometimes-barren grounds in Africa these grandiose shelters rise high above the ground, and are an architectural wonder. It is utterly amazing considering the efficiency and commitment it takes these social insects to maintain these spectacular mounds.

Due to their effective lifestyles, termites are considered among the most successful insects in the world. Fossils of their ancestors have been dated back to Eocene and Miocene eras, placing this evolving species on the earth for approximately fifty million years. With this kind of time frame, it is no wonder that they function with such precision. They've had plenty of time to perfect their methods. Termites belong to the Animalia kingdom and the Termitidae family.

There is a worm, which makes its home inside of wood known as "tarmes". It is from the name of this small worm that the name "termite" is derived from. As with many other insects, termites have a strict social order to their colonies. This order consists of the workers, soldiers and the reproductives. The stages are further broken down and consist of juvenile, adult and senile aged termites.

The workers have great responsibility in the nest, and are blind and wingless. The sexually immature workers must undertake the job of feeding the incapable soldiers, and for digging the tunnels inside the mound. Soldiers have the honor of protecting and defending the nest at any cost. When the nest is trespassed upon, thousands of soldiers will come to its defense and attack. These little toughies are mainly females and can be quite large in size. One of their unique abilities is to produce a toxic fluid that is similar in consistency to that of glue, and is used in the defense of the mound. Lastly and certainly quite important are the reproductives. Their roles are quite straight forward, and consist of providing sperm and laying eggs. The reproductives also possess wings unlike the others. It is entirely possible for the queen to grow over five inches, and when breeding to capacity, can lay as many as 30,000 eggs. Obviously this state would render her very vulnerable, and explains why the soldiers are ferocious in their defense of the nest.

Everyone thinks that termites survive off the wood that they ingest. This is not entirely correct. Each termite has an organism in its stomach, which actually digests the wood. Termites are unable to digest cellulose, which is what wood basically consists of. The organism digests the wood and then the termites feed on the by-products, and even the organism itself. Termites actually eat anything that consists of cellulose, and do not restrict themselves to wood products. Unknown to many people is the fact that termites will also feed upon items such as dung and plant roots. The relationship between the termite and the organism in their stomach is a good example of mutualism. There are many species that depend on another for life or death processes.

Many social insects use a chemical process in order to communicate. This chemical is produced from their bodies and is known as pheromones. It is used to map out trails, so that the insects can find their way back to the nest while hunting, and is even used to determine the social order in the nest. In the case of termites, the reproductives produce the pheromones, and are used to determine the status of the other termites. It can cause termites to become the sexually immature and sterile workers, instead of becoming a reproductive.

Their most notable characteristic is the immense nests that they construct. These large nests have been known to reach heights of up to twenty feet or more. Some have even been found to have diameters of about thirty meters. Their building materials are simple although effective, and consist of soil and termite saliva. Mounds are usually situated in regions with excellent drainage, and are so well built that they usually last long after the colonies have gone. The insides of the nest can be very complex and consist of a maze of tunnels and various chambers. Usually the surface of a mature mound supports a healthy supply of vegetation. This vegetation consists mainly of grasses. The internal structures of the nest are complex and include separate areas for breeding, gardening and egg development. The gardening chamber is only utilized in some nests, and is used to grow and harvest fungi as a food source. Chimneys or shafts inside the mound handle ventilation and temperature control. The termites also gather water from below the surface and distribute it along the interior of the mound. Amazingly, the internal temperature of the mound is quite effectively regulated in this manner. Even if the outside region is scorching, the inside is kept at a steady, comfortable level.

Even the mighty termite has enemies including the Aardvark, which has an evolved tongue and long claws which help it to invade the mounds. The driver ant is another predator that enters and attacks the termites on their own turf. During the occasional times that the termites are mobile outside the nest, they are vulnerable to various birds and reptiles.

Unbelievable to many, termites serve vast ecological significance. Their un-used mounds provide shelter to new termite colonies and other species. They are an invaluable food source to some species including the African people. Their high fat and protein levels are quite valuable to people who may be nutritionally deprived. Termites are also believed to improve soil quality by helping to recycle nutrients. Their movement underground is also believed to aerate the soil. Termites assist with decomposition as well. A good example would be their ingestion of elephant dung. Dung consists of cellulose, and after ingestion, it is converted into a type of sugar. They do have a serious drawback, which is their love of maize and millet. To farmers of these crops, they pose some serious hardship. Young crops can be totally devastated by termites.

Many so-called pests serve a greater purpose, and it is time the value of the termite is recognized. This highly evolved and social animal has its niche in the world, and without it, we could suffer some significant losses. They are the primary animals that thrive on cellulose matter. Results of their demise could include poorer soil quality, stresses on animal and human species due to loss of food sources, and the end of an incredibly successful species.

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