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Why Problematic Termites Are Beneficial In Times Of Drought

Why Problematic Termites Are Beneficial In Times Of Drought

Just about everyone is well aware of the fact that termites inflict significant damage to timber-framed structures, but fewer people are aware of the fact that termites consume wood in order to secure the nutritious cellulose that makes up all forms of plant material. Therefore, termites can also consume smaller wooden items, the paper in books or even champagne corks. Termite damage to structural wood is almost always inflicted by subterranean termites, while both dampwood and drywood termites are the most frequent culprits behind infestations found in smaller objects containing cellulose. Pest control professionals encounter subterranean termite infestations in structural wood far more often than they encounter drywood or dampwood infestations in smaller wooden objects. Subterranean termite damage to structures accounts for a majority of the economic costs of termite damage, which is around 5 billion dollars per year. While subterranean termites may be one of the most economically devastating insect pests that exist, they may also mitigate the negative effects of long-running droughts.

Scientists have long known that termites play an essential role in the health of the ecosystem, as they aerate soil with their subterranean tunneling activity and convert dead plant matter to fertile soil. But now, scientists have found evidence that termites allow soil to retain significant levels of moisture during times of drought. In a large forested area, researchers compared the moisture levels in soil that had been inhabited by subterranean termites with soil that had been free of termites. When droughts did not occur, moisture levels in each area of land remained the same, but during a 20 year drought, termite-inhabited soil retained enough moisture to allow for plant growth. Considering this finding, subterranean termites, although harmful to structures, can maintain a soil fertility during even the most significant of drought periods, thus allowing for the survival of economically valuable cropland.

Considering the above described study, do you believe that subterranean termite activity in crop-soil could be of benefit during dry spells?

 

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Termites Can Monitor The Communication That Takes Place Between Termites Of Competing Species

Termites Can Monitor The Communication That Takes Place Between Termites Of Competing Species

While apex predators do exist, animals that exercise total dominance over a particular region’s resources are rare in nature. Unlike the very few apex predators that exist, most animal species are forced to indulge in frequent battles over resources, and these violent battles can be costly for species. It is for this reason that most animals dwell within particular locales that are free of other hostile animals. It is when animals forage away from their nests or shelters that they become faced with threats that could erupt into full blown battles. Considering the relatively small size of termites and the isolated and well fortressed nesting sites that they inhabit, the daily life of a termite clearly entails constant threats from other competing animals, especially ants. In addition to ants, termites face significant competition from other termite species. This is because most regions of the world, especially tropical regions, are home to a variety of different termite species, all of which are competing for the very same resources. Despite the naturally belligerent relationship that exists between most termites of different species, it is surprising to learn that multiple species often inhabit the same nesting site. As you can imagine, interspecies battles between termites occur frequently when they inhabit the same nest. However, by eavesdropping on their more dominant subterranean counterparts, drywood termites can escape from violent encounters before they occur.

It may seem odd that competing termite species may dwell within the same nest, but sometimes, having access to the resources that a nest provides outweighs the risk of falling victim to a violent encounter with an enemy species. However, researchers have long been confused by the presence of drywood termites in pieces of wood that are dominated by a far greater number of subterranean termites. Drywood termite colonies grow to contain a few hundred individual termites, but subterranean termites dwell within colonies containing millions of individual termites. Considering this, it would seem that drywood termites are at a tremendous disadvantage, but how do they continue to survive within such a hostile environment? As it turns out, the Cryptotermes secundus species of drywood termite is blessed with the ability to recognize the vibro-acoustic communication signals that take place between their nearby subterranean enemies, the Coptotermes acinaciformis species. The drywood termites of this species are attracted to their own vibration signals, but they are repelled by the vibrations produced by subterranean termites. In fact, as a cohabitated piece of wood becomes smaller as a result of constant feeding, the drywood termites become progressively more repelled by the vibration signals produced by their subterranean enemies. This makes sense considering that the chances of falling victim to a subterranean termite attack increases as the piece of infested wood becomes smaller. To put it simply, these drywood termites indulge in espionage in order to gain an advantage over their more powerful subterranean enemies.

Do you think that subterranean termites are capable of differentiating between their own vibration signals and those of other species?

 

 

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A Massive Art Exhibition Is Allowing Visitors To Explore Termite Habitats From A Termite’s Perspective

You probably have not heard many artists claim to have been inspired by insects, let alone termites, but one famous artist, Nicholas Mangan, is an exception in this regard. Mangan has recently contributed an art display to the Taipei Fine Arts Museum as a part of the museum’s exhibit titled: Post Nature–A Museum as an Ecosystem. Most of Mangan’s work highlights aspects of the ecosystem that many people are unfamiliar with. For example, Mangan’s latest exhibit focuses on the positive effect that termites have on the ecosystem.

Mangan is calling his exhibit Termite Economics, and it consists of 3D printed models of different termite habitats, including nesting mounds, earthen tunnel networks and dwelling chambers within blocks of wood. All of his 3D models were constructed from plaster, dirt, synthetic polymer paint, and plywood. In addition to the habitat models, Mangan also commissioned drone footage of particular regions of Australia’s arid landscape where termites are known to be active. This footage is played on a continuous loop in order to provide spectators with a termite’s point of view as it navigates terrain and approaches its nest. The footage is played on a computer that is situated amongst Mangan’s models. This exhibition was inspired by current termite research being conducted by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, or CSIRO.

Researchers working for CSIRO are currently studying how subterranean termites can lead humans toward rare mineral sources that are located far below the ground where they cannot be viewed by humans. Mangan believes that CSIRO research shows how social cooperation among termites allows the insects to achieve feats that are beyond human capabilities, such as complicated mound architecture, and in this case, mining, so to speak. Mangan’s exhibit allows people to understand how the mining and world-building capability of termites reflects manmade economic systems and social hierarchies. For Mangan, a termite colony is like a tiny universe that closely resembles human sociality.

Do you believe that termite sociality is similar to human sociality?

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Termites May Have Infested The Primitive Dwellings Built By Ancient American Indians

Termites May Have Infested The Primitive Dwellings Built By Ancient American Indians

Termites are among the oldest of all insect groups, so these destructive pests must have been known to ancient humans. It can be assumed that ancient peoples dreaded termites just as much as moderns do. In fact, there exists evidence to suggest that termites may have infested the primitive homes constructed by Native Americans thousands of years ago.

It is not uncommon for archeologists to recover ancient termite fecal pellets from dig sites. Back in 1984, an entomologist correctly identified a mysterious and tiny object that had been unearthed in Arizona. This object was a prehistoric fecal pellet, and it originated from an area of Arizona that contains remnants of ancient living structures that had been built by Native Americans at least ten centuries ago. Although this termite pellet, and many others, were well-preserved, it was determined that the pellet had been burned, possibly as a result of burning firewood that contained termite colonies. It was also determined that the fecal pellets had been expelled by either drywood or dampwood termites.

Unlike subterranean termites, which dwell within soil, both drywood and dampwood termites live out their entire lives within one single piece of wood. For these termites, their home is also their food source, therefore, foraging is not necessary for these termites. The drywood termite pellets found within the ancient structures did not exactly resemble the fecal pellets that are expelled by modern wood-dwelling termites in Arizona. While this finding is peculiar, researchers are more interested in how the drywood termites came to be associated with ancient Native American dwellings. One theory states that ancient Native Americans burned and stored firewood that contained termites. Another theory states that termites infested certain wood and plant materials that were used to construct ancient structures.

In Snowflake and Phoenix, Arizona, termite fecal pellets were unearthed from ancient fire pits. Pueblo and Anasazi Native American tribes were known for using wood and plant materials for constructing the side walls and roofs of their largely mud-constructed homes. Many of these woody plant materials likely contained termites before they were collected as construction materials. However, researchers have not yet found direct evidence of ancient termite infestations within the woody plant materials contained within ancient prehistoric homes unearthed in Arizona, but a termite presence within ancient firewood seems certain.

Do you believe that termites have been viewed as pests for as long as humans have been using wood to build homes?

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The Eco-Friendly Bacteria That Live Within Termite Mounds Absorb The Harmful Methane Gases Produced By The Insects

Climate change is widely understood to be driven by the air pollution that results from burning fossil fuels. While fossil fuel emissions account for most forms of air pollution, there also exists several natural sources of air pollution. For example, cattle are well known for contributing to climate change by releasing digestive gas that is rich in methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Surprisingly, termites emit far more methane into the atmosphere than cows. This is due, in part, to termite abundance, but the unique wood-digesting bacteria in termite guts is the primary reason for the relatively methane-rich digestive gas emitted by the insects. Experts estimate that termites are responsible for 1 to 3 percent of all methane emissions. This seemingly insignificant amount actually equals 20 million tons of methane. However, the amount of methane emitted by termites may be less significant than previously thought, as researchers have recently learned that termite nesting mounds contain bacterial microorganisms that absorb the methane gas released by termites.

Considering that mounds contain entire colonies that are composed of thousands of individual termites, methane emissions are particularly thick and concentrated around mounds. Since mounds are methane hotspots, Dr. Philipp Nauer from the School of Ecosystem and Forest Sciences at the University of Melbourne measured methane emissions within mounds to gain a more accurate idea of how much methane is released into the atmosphere.

Dr. Nauer did not expect to discover methane-consuming bacteria within termite mound-soil. This group of soil bacteria are known as methanotrophs, and they consume methane gas as their primary energy source. The researchers measured the amount of methane consumed by methanotrophs in 29 mounds from 3 termite species. It turns out that 50 percent of the methane released by termites within a mound is consumed by the bacteria. The methods Dr. Nauer developed for measuring the amount of gas that is released by termite mounds, and the amount of gas consumed by methanotrophs within mounds can also be used to measure termite population size within each mound.

Do you think that some forms of termite activity could be environmentally harmful despite the fact that termites are an ecologically essential insect species?

 

 

Termite Behavior Can Be Altered By Various Types Of Wood Fungus

Termite Behavior Can Be Altered By Various Types Of Wood Fungus

Termites mostly feed on natural sources of wood and dead plant matter located in regions that are largely uninhabited. Although termites are ecologically important for clearing land of dead wood and plant matter, numerous fungal species are also essential for wood degradation. Termites and fungi both thrive within hot, wet and humid conditions, and both compete for nutritional and water resources. In fact, termites and fungi have been known to partition their mutual habitat in order to fairly divide resources, and some termites have evolved symbiotic relationships with fungi. Not surprisingly, different species of wood-degrading fungi can alter termite behavior, which may play a part in facilitating their mutually cooperative relationship. Some species of wood-degrading fungi can even repel termites or slow their feeding. These forms of wood-degrading fungi could be used for developing new termite control strategies.

The species of wood-degrading fungus known as G. trabeum contains a chemical that is identical to a trail-pheromone that is emitted by termites. This fungus has also been found to influence the manner in which termites construct their tube shelters and select their food. Pest control researchers once created a bait-trap for termites by mixing G. trabeum with a slow acting poison that termite workers acquire before spreading the poison to the rest of their colony. A 2002 study had researchers expose termites to three different types of fungi. When eastern subterranean termites and Formosan subterranean termites were given a choice between a fungus-free sawdust pile and three other piles that had been colonized with white rot, brown rot and litter rot fungi, both termite species preferred all three of the fungal sawdust piles over the fungus-free sawdust pile. Both species preferred white rot and litter rot fungi over brown rot fungi. Also, all three of the fungal sawdust piles caused Formosan termites to increase their tunneling speeds while untreated sawdust had no effect on tunneling speed. It has been suggested that some wood-degrading fungi allows termites to absorb more nutrients in wood, which may increase their energy levels. Several different types of wood-degrading fungi have shown promise as bait components in termite traps.

Do you think that some types of wood-degrading fungi that could attract termites to bait-traps could be harmful to humans?

 

 

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How Could Forest Dwelling Termites Possibly Survive Massive Wildfires

It is a shame that termites are commonly regarded with disdain. Although it is true that termites cause billions of dollars in structural damage every year in the United States alone, these admittedly destructive insects are capable of feats that no other insect, animal or even human could accomplish. It is becoming increasingly well known that termites promote vegetative growth by removing dead plant matter from the ground before converting it into matter that contributes to soil fertility. Therefore, just by consuming wood, termites provide two seperate environmentally beneficial services. Even more impressive are the naturally air conditioned and architecturally complicated 30 foot tall nesting mounds that higher termites build in African and Asian regions. As impressive as these abilities are, no degree of inventiveness or mutual cooperation among termites can prevent them from becoming incinerated in forest fires. After all, forest fires can span hundreds of acres and can travel at fourteen miles per hour, destroying absolutely every animal, plant and insect in its path. Despite the small amount of studies concerning termite morality during wildfires, their does exist valid scientific evidence to suggest that forest-dwelling termites can indeed survive wildfires.

It goes without saying that a great number of termites parish during wildfires, but given their high abundance relative to other forest dwelling arthropods, an unexpectedly high amount also survive. The reason for this has to do with their subterranean nature, as termites can seek refuge from wildfires several feet below the soil’s surface. Unlike subterranean termites, drywood and dampwood termites are not afforded the same protection from wildfires, and subterranean termites must already be present well below the ground’s surface in order to survive a wildfire. Some studies have demonstrated that mound-building termites can survive wildfires by remaining within their nesting mounds. Due to the unique composition of termite mounds, which is best described as “hard clay,” they are well insulated from the extreme heat emitted by a wildfire. Several studies have also revealed that termite populations are more abundant than other insect populations following wildfires. While termites certainly have an advantage over other insects when it comes to surviving wildfires, studies on this topic differ in their results and further research is necessary before positing that termites are relatively unaffected by wildfires.

Do you believe that any other forest-dwelling insect groups could have an advantage when it comes to surviving wildfires?

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Tours Of The Historic Wyatt Buildings Have Continued Despite A Termite Infestation

Tours Of The Historic Wyatt Buildings Have Continued Despite A Termite Infestation 

The town of Waxahachie, Texas contains many historical landmarks, the most notable of which is the Wyatt building. The Wyatt building and the nearby Calaboose building became infested with termites last summer. The construction of the Wyatt building, which is the oldest standing structure in the city, took place over a five year period from 1865 to 1870. The Calaboose building was originally used as a jail for imprisoning individuals convicted of minor crimes. Construction of the Calaboose building occurred during the year of 1888. While the Calaboose building has remained in the same spot since its construction, the Wyatt building has been moved twice order to avoid demolition. The two buildings are now under the control of a historical preservation group called Historic Waxahachie Inc. Although the buildings have become infested with termites, their doors are still open to the public. Luckily, the termite damage that has already occurred in the buildings is not substantial, but this could soon change if renovation efforts are not commenced soon.

Until renovations begin in the two buildings, guided tours will continue. Despite the termite damage that the buildings have sustained, Chelsea Klepfer, the executive director for Historic Waxahachie Inc, claims that the buildings have been maintained regularly to ensure public safety. According to Klepfer, if it were not for the regular efforts to maintain the antiquated structures, irreparable termite damage would likely have occured. Despite Klepfer’s claims, this is not the first time that termites have been found in the Wyatt building.

Last summer the Wyatt building was treated for termites, and all reports indicate that the treatment successfully eradicated the offending termites. However, only months later, some parts of the building must be replaced due to termite damage. Some parts of the building will be replaced as soon as next week, such as interior and exterior areas where termite-damaged wood can be seen. Klepfer states that one of these wooden areas was likely damaged by squirrels and not termites, but this claim may be regarded as dubious by some pest control professionals. An upcoming festival in Waxahachie known as “oddfest” will see numerous tourists flood into the Wyatt and Calaboose buildings in order to take tours while learning about the building’s rich history.

Would you feel comfortable visiting a historical structure that is infested with termites?

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Researchers Perplexed After Finding A New Species Of Termite With Unprecedented Jaws That Snap Shut At Incredible Speeds

Researchers Perplexed After Finding A New Species Of Termite With Unprecedented Jaws That Snap Shut At Incredible Speeds

It is not often that a new termite species is discovered, especially one that possesses bizarre and never before seen features. To call the most recently discovered termite species “odd” would not be going far enough, as this previously unknown species possesses narrow snapping jaws that no other known termite species possesses. This new species, Roisinitermes ebogoensis, belongs to a genus of drywood termite, and its menacing jaws clearly indicate its place in the soldier caste. Soldiers of many different species are easy to discern as they have developed mechanisms that are useful for repelling enemy insects. For example, some termite soldiers have plug-shaped heads that effectively block tunnel entrances around their nests, preventing enemy invasions. Many soldiers also possess oversized jaws that contain sharp teeth. The jaws of soldier termites have evolved to do nothing more than attack enemies, as soldiers cannot even feed themselves on account of their huge jaws. This is why worker termites literally administer food to soldiers. What is perhaps most remarkable about the newly discovered species is the speed at which its jaws snap shut. In fact, this soldier termite’s jaws snap shut at the highest acceleration speeds measured in a living organism.

The jaws of this new termite species are not used for biting per se; instead, their jaws are used for striking enemies. During defensive encounters, these soldiers will hold their mandibles together tightly until the potential energy is released, the left mandible then springs over the right creating a snap that strikes any enemy insects that are in its close vicinity. As you can probably guess, it is unprecedented for a soldier termite to use its jaws in this particular manner.

This species was recently discovered in Cameroon, and with the exception of one extinct termite species, it is the only termite species to use snapping mandibles as a defensive tactic. This feature raises several questions. For example, did snapping mandibles evolve independently in two termite lineages? Or is the extinct species distantly related to the newly discovered species? This new species is not thought to be a pest, but researchers no almost nothing about the species, making further research a top priority for entomologists.

Have you ever had the desire to discover a new insect species?

 

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How Do Termite Colonies Respond To Overpopulation And Underpopulation In The Nest?

If you have always found insects to be fascinating, then you may have noticed that not many people share your enthusiasm for creepy-crawlies. For many people, insects are nothing more than annoying, disgusting or even dangerous pests. While insects may not make for the best topic of conversation at parties, the capabilities of some insect species are nothing short of impressive. For ages, people of all types have marveled over the group of insects that are today referred to as “eusocial insects,” or simply, “social insects.” These insects are well known for living in colonies that operate according to a caste system. Social insects include bees, ants, wasps and termites. All social insect types are unique and very different from typical solitary insects, even dreaded termites. In fact, many experts regard termites as being the most unique of all social insects, as some species build towering and castle-like structures that are known as “mounds.” A mound is only one type of termite nest. For example, some termite nests are located entirely underground, while other nests exist within pieces of wood or on tree limbs. Termite nests may differ, but the colonies that exist within termite nests are quite similar in functioning, no matter the species being considered.

Termites are divided into three groups within a colony. These different groups, or castes, are known as workers, soldiers and reproductives, but all termites are genetically identical upon hatching as nymphs. Although scientists still have much to learn about how caste-differentiation occurs as termites age, it is well understood that a colony’s population must be constantly regulated by the queen’s pheromones so that productivity is not hampered by overpopulation or underpopulation. In the vast majority of cases, there exists only one reproductive queen and king in each colony, and the ratio of soldiers to workers must be closely monitored and regulated by queens. In case a worker or soldier dies or becomes lost, one of the many underdeveloped nymphs that are kept on reserve within a colony begin to develop into either workers or soldiers in order to replace the missing termites. In cases where one caste becomes overpopulated, selective cannibalism occurs in order to restore a colony’s proper balance. If massive amounts of soldier and worker termites die during a predatory attack, a queen sends a chemical message to nymphs in order to prompt their maturation into a soldier or worker. It has been theorized that these chemical messages, or pheromones, activate an organ near a nymph’s brain that prompts the release of the hormones responsible for making nymphs grow into soldiers or workers. This organ is known as the “corpora allata,” but experts still aren’t sure if hormones are the only bodily chemicals responsible for causing nymphs to suddenly mature into full workers or soldiers.

Has a particular insect species ever inspired you to study insects?