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TERMITES

Despite their small size, termites are one of the most economically devastating pests on the planet.

Termites are well known to every homeowner in Australia for good reason. An accurate cost of termite damage worldwide is impossible to calculate but estimates put it as high as US$40 billion per year. And for Australia one report puts the annual cost as high as AUD3.9 billion. Studies show that over 60% of Australian homes have been or will be affected by these pests.

NOT ALL TERMITES ARE EQUAL

Termite species are normally split into one of three categories. These categories are only broad definitions as there is some overlap in habits and habitats

As the name suggests, dampwood termites need a moist environment to thrive. In a home, this may be provided by a dripping pipe or a leaking gutter. Dampwood termites feed on wood that has rotted, aided in their digestion by fungus attacking the wood. Although their colonies may be large, this type of termite is not often seen. These termites live in the decaying wood they feed on, and not in the soil.

Unsurprisingly, drywood termites prefer a drier environment, obtaining needed moisture from the wood they feed on. They can be destructive but, because the colonies are relatively small, this normally occurs at a fairly slow rate.

The most damage to Australian homes is caused by those in the third category: subterranean termites. They live in soil, getting moisture from it rather than the wood they consume. Subterranean termite colonies can be large and not always located in close proximity to the building they choose to attack. But, they may be connected to it either by underground tunnels or mud-walled surface channels.

WHY IS AUSTRALIA SO BADLY EFFECTED BY TERMITES?

There are roughly 3,000 known species of termite in the world. Australia covers a landmass that includes every ideal termite habitat, from tropical rainforest to desert and urban to rural. So it’s hardly surprising that around 360 species are found here, although less than 30 species are considered pests.

A similar situation exists in the US. That country also has a wide range of habitats that suit termites. But with a far greater population, reports show termites are responsible for over US$5 billion worth of damage annually . The average bill for each North American household damaged by termites is estimated to be US$3,000.

 AMAZING  SOCIAL ARCHITECTS

Termites are social insects that live in highly organised colonies consisting of castes. Each caste is noticeably different in physical appearance and in the work they do. All colonies have fertile males (kings) and females (queens). A single colony may have more than one of each. Termite queens can still lay eggs at 50 years old, making them the longest-lived of all insects.

The rest of the colony comprises soldiers and infertile workers, which may be male or female. Soldiers come in various sizes depending on the species and are equipped in different ways to defend the nest. The workers will forage for food, tend the nymphs and maintain the nest.

Keenly sought by many predators as nutritious snacks, this pest has learned to stay out of sight even when present in large numbers.

A colony may only have a few hundred termites or multiple nests totalling millions of individuals. The nests can be complex structures complete with rudimentary air conditioning. Size and structure will depend on the species and the environment.

Termites undergo incomplete metamorphosis. This means that, unlike many insects such as flies, they do not go through the egg, larva, pupa, adult cycle. Termite eggs hatch into nymphs which undergo a series of moults until they become adults. The number of moults will vary by species and also according to the eventual role of the adult termite.

The length of the life cycle depends on the availability of food, temperature and, to a lesser extent, the needs of the colony. Pheromones from the queen (or less commonly, the king) control the development of the nymphs, determining whether they will be workers, soldiers, kings or queens.

Pheromones also dictate when winged termites or alates appear. The alates are fertile males and females that swarm from their nests to start new colonies.

When a colony is still new, the queen may only lay as few as 10 to 20 eggs a day. Within a year or two this may have increased to 1,000 eggs a day. Once the colony is fully established, a single queen might lay up to 40,000 eggs daily (5).

Termites are best known for their ability to consume cellulose, which is abundant in nature, found in wood and plant material. These insects are among the few creatures that possess the necessary bacteria in their gut to break down cellulose for digestion.

Only workers can turn cellulose into food. The other castes lack the bacteria to convert cellulose, so they rely on a food sharing system called trophallaxis. By passing on pre-digested cellulose to their fellow termites, workers feed all the other members of the colony.

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