Wood-hungry termites have intricate caste system – Blair Enterprise Publishing

Posted: July 31, 2017 at 9:40 am

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Termites are insects closely related to cockroaches, and are among the most successful groups of insects on earth, colonizing all continents except Antarctica. To date, there are some 3,106 species that have been identified.

Termites are usually small, measuring between 0.16 and 0.59 inches long. Due to their appearance, they are often called “white ants,” but they are not ants.

Termites live in colonies, and have a caste system that includes sterile male and female workers, soldiers, kings (fertile males) and one or more fertile females called “queens.” The king and queen reproduce; the soldiers defend the colony; and the workers feed the other members of the colony with substances derived from the digestion of plant material, either from the mouth or anus.

Female termite queens are thought to have the longest lifespan among adult insects 15 to 20 years whereas most tend to live for only a few weeks at most.

Termites are notorious for their ability to eat wood and cause billions of dollars of damage to wooden structures, crops and plantation forests worldwide. However, they do play a necessary role in the environment by recycling in the soil the complex carbohydrate cellulose that is found in the cell walls of dead plants. Most termite species rely on symbiotic protozoa and other microbes in their gut to digest the cellulose that they chew and swallow, allowing them to absorb the end products for their own use.

A few species of termites practice what is called fungiculture. The termites dig tunnels in the wood, then inoculate the tunnels with fungi that grow on the wood. These termites then eat the fungi, not the wood itself.

Termites are eaten by a number of animals, and they are also a delicacy in the diet of some human cultures and are used in many traditional medicines.

Larrie Stone is a retired Dana College science professor.

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Wood-hungry termites have intricate caste system – Blair Enterprise Publishing

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