That Gnawing Feeling

An Internet guide to the troublesome termite

termites
©iStockphoto.com/Michael Pettigrew

Over the past four months I’ve been working on and off to replace my deck, which was devoured by termites. The once-stout eight-by-six-inch beams that supported the structure were so riddled with tunnels that I could break the beams in half with an inexpert karate chop. My stomach turned whenever I split a joist open and saw the pale, maggotlike insects squirming for cover. To keep my house from going the way of the deck, I shell out several hundred dollars a year to professionals, who spot-treat colonies of drywood termites (as distinct from subterranean and other kinds) before they can gain a serious foothold. Needless to say, they are not one of my favorite families in the animal kingdom. With termite damage and control costing U.S. homeowners and businesses billions of dollars a year, I know I’m not alone.

Termites of one kind or another attack buildings anywhere it’s warm enough. In the United States, they seem particularly fond of the southern coasts. Here, in Los Angeles, I am targeted by subterranean termites from below, clouds of dispersing drywood termites from above. (In the spirit of “know your enemy,” I’ve become an expert on identifying drywood termite droppings. They look a lot like sawdust, but magnified, they have a distinct six-sided tubular shape.) Even the dreaded Formosan subterranean termites have been reported in the state to the south. To get of rough idea of the termite threat in your region, here are a few maps:

For a map of drywood termites, go to Dow AgroSciences’s Site, which promotes a gas fumigant, pumped into “tented” homes to zap the insects.

For maps of subterranean termites, including the voracious Formosan species go to the site of the Center for Urban & Structural Entomology at Texas A&M, Click on “Texas Termites”and you’ll get a popup menu. To see Formosan termites aggressively defend their colony watch this impressive video on Youtube.

At the site of the New Orleans Mosquito and Termite Control Board, you’ll find the homepage of the National Termite Survey, which has an unsettling background shot of a teaming mass of termites. Click on “Termite Distribution Maps and Pictures” and select a species from four separate families to find where populations have been reported.

A United Nations Environmental Program aimed at reducing the use of persistent organic pesticides examines the global battle against termites from a number of angles.

During my Internet search, I discovered that termites evolved from wood-dwelling cockroaches, sometime prior to the Cretaceous Period. Go to botanist and blogger John K. Boggan’s page to get a summary of the event. It turns out to be a beautiful example of transitional animals leading from one group to another--the kind of connection denied by people who reject modern evolutionary biology. But termites from roaches? That does nothing to help my opinion of the group.

Whether you like them or not, there is no denying the ecological importance of termites. At Wildwatch, an online publication of the ecotourism concern Conservation Corporation Africa, there is a brief introduction to the role termites play in the African savanna, where their mounds resemble small volcanoes erupting from the plains. Not only do the termites recycle organic material and provide a rich source of protein for predators, they also provide housing; according to the article, abandoned mounds are often claimed by warthogs, spotted hyenas, and a host of smaller mammals and reptiles.

In a sense, termites also provide comfortable housing for people. One of the more intriguing termite-related sites I found was by a blogger writing about the Eastgate Building in Harare, Zimbabwe, which is designed to mimic the heating and cooling techniques employed by local termite mounds. The termites must maintain the interior of their dwellings at 87 degrees to grow the fungus that is their primary food source—a remarkable accomplishment where exterior temperatures range from 35 degrees at night to 104 during the day. The Eastgate Building mimics this energy-efficient approach and uses no heating and very little air conditioning. (You can get an explanation of how the termites do it on this Youtube video.)

Forestry professor, Timothy G. Myles, with the Urban Entomology Program at the University of Toronto has developed a remarkably effective method of wiping out subterranean termites. Called Trap, Treat, and Release, it exploits the insects’ habit of grooming to spread a small amount of poison throughout the colony. It’s so effective, Myles is concerned about the danger of overzealous control, the lose of too many colonies and the benefits they offer. Read his article on Decompiculture. He believes that cultured termites--fed to chicken, salmon, and shrimp—could become a major source of our protein. Humans already have a long tradition of eating termites. Peruse the program’s list of termite-eating animals of the world and you’ll discover that native people already consume termites in Asia, Africa, and South America.

Termites may a play a significant role in our energy future—or should I say their guts might. The tremendous success of this group comes from the community of organisms thriving in the termite’s digestive tract. Endowed with a host of protozoans and bacteria evolved to release enzymes to digest otherwise indigestible cellulose, termites are tiny bioreactors with complex chemistry that researchers hope to understand and perhaps emulate on a large scale.

At Microscopy-UK, a British online magazine, I found a couple of beautiful images of termite gut symbionts made by Wim van Egmond. A short article at BioMEDIA Associates entitled “Glorious Guts” by Bruce J. Russell has more images, along with the description of the various ways you extract the microorganisms from the lab termite.

An article in LA weekly entitled “Gut Reactions,” by reporter Margaret Wertheim, describes the work of Jared Leadbetter, an assistant professor of microbiology at the California Institute of Technology who is one of scientists leading the exploration of the termite’s intestinal fauna. As payoff, he foresees a cheap, efficient way to turn wood chips into ethanol to power our cars. Nobel Laureate Steven Chu shares Leadbetter’s dreams. Now the director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Chu is spearheading research that will make biofuels, like ethanol from cellulose, a more viable alternative than ethanol from corn. He too thinks termites and their symbiotic organisms will play a key role in the transition to sustainable fuels. Chu gave one of the plenary lectures at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) this year, in which he discussed his lab’s efforts to develop energy sources that do not add to global warming. See the video of his lecture (RealPlayer) to learn more about how the termites figure in (they are discussed about halfway through the talk). The next time you find termite damage, perhaps you’ll be consoled by the fact that these pests are leading us to a greener future.

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