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Termites

June 19, 2008 by  


Termites, sometimes incorrectly called “white ants”, are a group of social insects. As truly social animals, they are termed eusocial along with the ants and some bees and wasps. Termites mostly feed on dead plant material, generally wood, leaf litter, soil, or animal dung, and about 10% of the estimated 4,000 species (about 2,600 taxonomically known) are economically significant as pests that can cause serious structural damage to buildings, crops or plantation forests. Termites are major detrivores, particularly in the subtropical and tropical regions, and their recycling of wood and other plant matter is very ecologically important.

As eusocial insects, termites live in colonies that, at maturity, number from several hundred to several million individuals. They are a prime example of decentralised, self-organised systems using swarm intelligence, and use this cooperation to exploit food sources and environments that could not be available to any single insect acting alone. A typical colony contains nymphs (semi-mature young), workers, soldiers, and reproductive individuals of both genders, sometimes containing several egg-laying queens. Workers undertake the labours of foraging, food storage, brood, nest maintenance, and some of the defence effort in certain species.

Termite workers are generally blind due to undeveloped eyes. Despite this limitation, they are able to create elaborate nests and tunnel systems using a combination of soil, chewed wood/cellulose, saliva, and faeces. Some species have been known to create such durable walls that industrial machinery has been damaged in an attempt to break their tall mounds. Some African and Australian species have mounds more than 4 metres high. The nest is created and maintained by workers with many distinct features such as housing the brood, water collection through condensation, reproductive chambers, and tunnel networks that effectively provide air conditioning and control the CO2/O2balance. A few species even practice agriculture, with elaborate fungal gardens which are fed on collected plant matter, providing a nutritiousmycelium on which the colony then feeds.

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