Termites the unseen destroyers

Prof. B L Kaul

Termites also called white ants have been
around since time began. They are social
insects, like bees and ants, that feed
upon dead wood, books, furniture even
clothes and are the world’s most
destructive creatures. They are unseen
destroyers of houses and furniture
– indeed of all things made from timber.
There are an estimated 4,000 species of termites. Termites are ant-like insects of the order Isoptera. They are often referred as white ants because of their white color but they are different in structure and habits. They occur in communities consisting of enormous numbers, in tropical and sub-tropical regions of every continent. Being social like ants and bees they have castes consisting of a queen, males, workers and soldiers.
Termites enter quietly the wood-work, or logs, or trees often unseen at the lowest possible point, and burrow their way in all directions, their presence unsuspected until their galleries have so weakened the material that it collapses at a touch. It was a great shock to the custodians of the Vatican library at Rome when in 1949, its walls and ceilings were discovered to have been galleried by these tireless insects, which had also destroyed many priceless manuscripts and books in their ceaseless search for food.
The termites which feed on wood and derivatives of wood live in a strange partnership with tiny protozoa (one celled microscopic creatures). These microscopic creatures live in the intestines of the termites. They tackle the woody material as the termites swallow it, and reduce it to a state in which it is easy for the termites to digest. Without these interior helpers the wood-eating specieswould starve to death.
A termite colony inside the soil is called termatarium. Inside it there are wide galleries and nests and spaces sheltering the queen and the young ones. Many species cultivate fungi in the open spaces for eating. Some species raise above their subterranean galleries and nests enormous mounds of soil many feet in height. It is recorded that in Africa these mounds may be as tall as 20 feet. The author has seen large termite mounds in Orissa measuring anywhere between 7 to 9 feet.
In Jammu region there are termite mounds hardly measuring 3 to 5 feet above ground. These are locally called “Burmi” and revered as the abode of “Nag Devta” since they provide an easy home for snakes. But they are not always occupied by snakes. A particular “Burmi” at New Plots Jammu, the author found, was inhabitated by rats. So it could not be a home to snakes of any kind which predate on rats, yet on Nag Panchmi day all the ladies of the area came to offer prayers there. The owner of the plot decorated it and reaped a good hervest of offerings on every Nag Panchmi!
The vast nest inside the termatarium houses nurseries and also a royal cell in which lies the enormous termite queen, a gigantic insect some times four inches long, a living egg factory. She may lay eggs at the rate of 30,000 a day and she is constantly attended by workers and guards. There are also males in the community, which like the queen, may either be winged or wingless; the wings are discarded after mating. The male termite who is the king of the colony lives in a cell with the queen.
The termite colony consists mainly of workers of various types. There are small workers, which do the ordinary jobs in the nest-tending the developing young, feeding all the non-workers, clearing up and so on. There are larger workers, about half an inch long with more powerful jaws and soldiers with hugejaws which defend the community and wage war against other termite colonies.
These insects are not without merit. They are responsible for providing food for many types of predators and provide shelter in termataria to many animals. The termite mounds become a haven in flooded rainy areas and make water soak in more easily, halting erosion. In many parts of the world people including tribals in India eat termites. They are caught as they swarm around lights and then roasted or fried.
Termites do well in moist environment, so it is of utmost importance to fix leaky pipes and faucets to prevent their entry into our homes. We should keep fire wood, mulch, scrap pieces of wood and trees away from our home’s foundations. Cracks and holes in the foundation should be fixed to prevent entry of termites. Once detected in the house specific anti-termite insecticides should be injected into the holes made by them. Kerosene oil is also a strong anti-termite. While building a house anti termite treatment of the foundation can prevent attack by termites. Now-a-days anti – termite treatment is possible to protect buildings from termite attacks.