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The animal human interaction between termites and man has occured in a number of ways. About 10 percent 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 detritivores, particularly in the subtropical and tropical regions, and their recycling of wood and other plant matter is of considerable ecological importance.

Timber damage[edit | edit source]

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The result of an infestation is severe wood damage

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Termite damage on external structure

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Termite damage in wooden house stumps

Owing to their wood-eating habits, many termite species can do great damage to unprotected buildings and other wooden structures. Their habit of remaining concealed often results in their presence being undetected until the timbers are severely damaged and exhibit surface changes. Once termites have entered a building, they do not limit themselves to wood; they also damage paper, cloth, carpets, and other cellulosic materials. Particles taken from soft plastics, plaster, rubber, and sealants such as silicone rubber and acrylics are often employed in construction.

Humans have moved many wood-eating species between continents, but have also caused drastic population decline in others through habitat loss and pesticide application.

Termites are commonly viewed as pests in many countries, because of the damage they can cause to structures and similar nuisances. In April 2011 wood-eating termites were blamed for reportedly consuming more than $220,000 worth of Indian rupee notes.[1]


  • Avoid contact of susceptible timber with ground by using termite-resistant concrete, steel, or masonry foundation with appropriate barriers. Even so, termites are able to bridge these with shelter tubes, and it has been known for termites to chew through piping made of soft plastics and even some metals, such as lead, to exploit moisture. In general, new buildings should be constructed with embedded physical termite barriers so that there are no easy means for termites to gain concealed entry. While barriers of poisoned soil, so-called termite pre-treatment, have been in general use since the 1970s, it is preferable that these be used only for existing buildings without effective physical barriers.
  • The intent of termite barriers (whether physical, poisoned soil, or some of the new poisoned plastics) is to prevent the termites from gaining unseen access to structures. In most instances, termites attempting to enter a barriered building will be forced into the less favourable approach of building shelter tubes up the outside walls; thus, they can be clearly visible both to the building occupants and a range of predators.
  • Timber treatment.
  • Termite pre-treatment.
  • Use of timber that is naturally resistant to termites such as Syncarpia glomulifera (Turpentine Tree), Tectona grandis (Teak), Callitris glaucophylla (White Cypress), or one of the sequoias. Note that there is no tree species whose every individual tree yields only timbers that are immune to termite damage, so that even with well-known termite-resistant timber types, there will occasionally be pieces that are attacked.

When termites have already penetrated a building, the first action is usually to destroy the colony with insecticides before removing the termites' means of access and fixing the problems that encouraged them in the first place. Baits (feeder stations) with small quantities of disruptive insect hormones or other very slow acting toxins have become the preferred least-toxic management tool in most western countries. This has replaced the dusting of toxins direct into termite tunnels that had been widely done since the early 1930s (originating in Australia). The main dust toxicants have been the inorganic metallic poison arsenic trioxide, insect growth regulators (hormones) such as triflumuron and, more recently fipronil, a phenyl-pyrazole. Blowing dusts into termite workings is a highly skilled process. All these slow-acting poisons can be distributed by the workers for hours or weeks before any symptoms occur and are capable of destroying the entire colony. More modern variations include chlorfluazuron, diflubenzuron, hexaflumuron, and novaflumuron as bait toxicants and fipronil, imidacloprid and chlorantraniprole as soil poisons. Soil poisons are the least-preferred method of control as this requires large doses of toxin and results in uncontrollable release to the environment.

The termite’s effects are damaging, costing the southwestern United States approximately $1.5 billion each year in wood structure damage. In order to better control the population of termites, researchers at the Agricultural Research Service have found a way to track the movement of the destructive pests. In 1990, researchers found a way to safely and reliably track termites using immunoglobulin G (IgG) marker proteins from rabbits or chickens. In field tests, termite bait was laced with the rabbit IgG and the termites were randomly exposed to feeding on this bait. Termites were later collected from the field and tested for the rabbit-IgG markers using a rabbit-IgG-specific assay. However, this method of testing for the tracking proteins is expensive. Recently, researchers have developed a new way of tracking the termites using egg white, cow milk, or soy milk proteins, which can be sprayed on the termites in the field. This new method is less expensive because the proteins can be traced using a protein-specific ELISA test. The ELISA test is more affordable, because it is designed for mass production. Researchers hope to use this method of tracking termites to find a more cost-effective way to control the damaging pests. [2]

File:Termites marked with traceable protiens.jpg

Agricultural Research Service scientists have developed a more affordable method to track the movement of termites using traceable proteins.[1]

Termites in the human diet[edit | edit source]

In many cultures, termites (particularly the winged ones known as alates) are used for food. The alates are nutritious, having a good store of fat and protein, and are palatable in most species with a nutty flavour when cooked. They are easily gathered at the beginning of the rainy season in West, Central and Southern Africa when they swarm, as they are attracted to lights and can be gathered up when they land on nets put up around a lamp. The wings are shed and can be removed by a technique similar to winnowing. They are best gently roasted on a hot plate or lightly fried until slightly crisp; oil is not usually needed since their bodies are naturally high in oil. Traditionally they make a welcome treat at the beginning of the rainy season when livestock is lean, new crops have not yet produced food, and stored produce from the previous growing season is running low.[citation needed]

They are also eaten in Indonesia, including Central Java, where they are roasted or fried.[citation needed]

Agriculture[edit | edit source]

Termites can be major agricultural pests, particularly in Africa and Asia, where crop losses can be severe. Counterbalancing this is the greatly improved water infiltration where termite tunnels in the soil allow rainwater to soak in deeply and help reduce runoff and consequent soil erosion.

Termites as a source of energy[edit | edit source]

The U.S. Department of Energy is researching ways to replace fossil fuels with renewable sources of cleaner energy, and termites are considered a possible way to reach this goal through metagenomics.[2]

Termites may produce up to two litres of hydrogen from digesting a single sheet of paper, making them one of the planet’s most efficient bioreactors.[3] Termites achieve this high degree of efficiency by exploiting the metabolic capabilities of about 200 different species of microbes that inhabit their hindguts. The microbial community in the termite gut efficiently manufactures large quantities of hydrogen; the complex lignocellulose polymers within wood are broken down into simple sugars by fermenting bacteria in the termite’s gut, using enzymes that produce hydrogen as a byproduct. A second wave of bacteria uses the simple sugars and hydrogen to make the acetate the termite requires for energy. By sequencing the termite's microbial community, the DOE hopes to get a better understanding of these biochemical pathways. If it can be determined which enzymes are used to create hydrogen, and which genes produce them, this process could potentially be scaled up with bioreactors to generate hydrogen from woody biomass, such as poplar, in commercial quantities.

Skeptics regard this as unlikely to become a carbon-neutral commercial process owing to the energy inputs required to maintain the system. For decades, researchers have sought to house termites on a commercial scale (like worm farms) to break down woody debris and paper, but funding has been scarce and the problems of developing a continuous process that does not disrupt the termites' homeostasis have not been overcome.[4]

Ground water divining in Ancient India[edit | edit source]

Varaha Mihira (505 AD- 587 AD), the famous astronomer, mathematician, and astrologer of India, in his treatise "Brihat Samhita," also spelled "Vrahat Sanhita," refers to Dakargala (Sanskrit word meaning “science of underground water exploration”), wherein the role of termite knolls, as an indicator of underground water has been elaborately explained.[5]

In Verse.S.54.9 of the Samhita, it is stated that sweet ground water would be found near a termite mound located east of a Jambu tree (botanical names - Eugenia Jambus,Engenia Jambolana), at a specific distance and a specific depth of 15 ft to the south of the tree.[5]

The above verse has been justified with an explanation:

Without exception the water requirements of the insects are generally very high, and they need to protect themselves against fatal desiccation by living and working within the climatically sealed environment of their nest or within earth covered galleries. According to present level of research, the atmosphere within the nest has to be maintained practically saturation moisture level ( 99-100 % humidity). It is a matter of common observation that whenever a termite nest or runway, is damaged, the insects immediately rush to the breach and repairs it with wet soil brought up from within the nest. From an overall consideration of the evidence it seems to be safe to conclude that, while normally the insects use every readily available source of water close to the ground surface, under condition of severe climatic stress, they can and they probably do descend to the water table, no matter how deep it may be. Hence, a well-developed, active, permanent colony of mound-building termites can be taken as an indication of underground springs in proximity.[5]

Two examples mentioned in the referred publication are, a) termiteries seen in the Katanga province (Congo Kinshasa) right up to the hill slopes where springs emerge, b) in the dry jungle uplands of coastal zone of Karnataka state (old Mysore state) and c) in the Deccan Plateau area.[5]

It is also asserted in the verse Vr.S.54.85 that among a group of termite mounds, a water vein is sure to be found below the taller of the mounds. Verse 52 mentions that in a desert region, if a group of five termite mounds are found, and if the middle one is in white colour, then water will be found within a depth of Fifty five Purushas (in Sanskrit one Purusha is equivalent to 7.5 ft) or 412.5 ft.[5]

As a common observation of a combination of different symptoms, termite mounds are said to be found close to trees, and ancient Hindus exploited this knowledge in the exploration of underground springs.[5]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. REDIRECT Template:Reflist
This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).
  1. includeonly>Sacks, Ethan. "Termites eat through $222,000 worth of rupee notes in Indian bank", Daily News.
  2. JGI - Organization responsible for sequencing the termite.
  3. Termite (Order: Isoptera) - Wiki. URL accessed on 2009-05-09.
  4. Original article on termites as bioreactors
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 Pages 58 to 60 of the publication titled “Hydrology in Ancient India,” published by the National Institute of Hydrology, Roorkee, India, as India’s contribution to International Hydrology Programme (IHP), published in September 1990
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