Written by: Josh Gilbert
This may seem like an odd blog topic; termites are just termites. However, while traversing Cheetah Plains I often find myself asking the question, “what exactly goes on in these mound things that we see everywhere?” I have discovered there is so much more to termites than meets the eye!
This blog will reveal much of the secret lives of termites including the purpose of these mounds, how termites deal with the threat of predators such as ants, as well as a few surprising facts about their colony structure.
The termite mound is an extraordinary engineering feat! Above is a cross section of the mound and ventilation features of the termite colony. These chimney like features are designed to regulate the temperature within the termite mound. The temperature below needs to be regulated at around 30ºC as this is the temperature at which the fungi, on which the termites feed, grows. Any cooler or warmer and it dies. These walls have been made to be porous because of many little tunnels created by the termites to allow airflow.
Air flows into the mound through these tunnels and mixes with the warm air inside and is drawn out the other side by the suction that is caused by the air that flows around the outside of the mound. When the mound is over-heating (above 30°C) the workers will open up more vents to allow more cool air inside and when it is becoming too cold, the workers close up these vents. These termites know when this needs to take place by a pheromone that is released by fellow termites.
The workers are solely responsible for the foraging of the food and the up-keep of the mound while the soldiers have the formidable task of protecting the mound. The soldiers are bigger than the workers and have a proportionately much bigger head to accommodate their large jaws or mandibles which can draw blood quite easily. Soldier’s use these mandibles to immobilise invading ants – once they have a grip on the victim, they release a sticky substance in order to pin the victim down so they can move onto the next enemy.
Termites are considered to be master farmers. The complexity of their underground farms is truly remarkable. Workers will go out foraging; eating up dead organic matter, but they are unable to digest this organic matter due to the high concentration of tough cellulose. They will return to the colony and defecate and plaster it onto combs that are found just below ground level. At that perfectly regulated temperature the fungus starts to grow on these combs, and digests and breaks the cellulose down into its organic matter which is digestible for the termites. The workers will now take this ready to eat product and feed it to the soldiers as they can’t feed themselves.
Another very interesting topic is the queen and her royal chamber. This is a small ‘room’ around the size of a small rugby ball. The queen and king will spend their lives in this royal chamber producing and fertilising up to thirty thousand eggs a day. The workers then collect the fertilised eggs and transport them away to nurseries where they will be looked after. The queen and king will faithfully do this daily task for up to thirty years until they die, leaving the colony to slowly start dying out into a dormant mound which will then go on to be used by up to eighteen different animal species! During the egg laying process, the king can determine what kind of termite the colony lacks and will fertilise accordingly.
While termites may be seen as a pest in parts of the developed world they play an essential part in ecosystem functioning and are an important source of protein to many species of animals. Without termites the bush would be a very different place. So the next time you see a termite mound, see it for what it is – one of the most complex structures created by any animal, that houses a society of termites with remarkable behaviours, working in harmony for the greater good of the colony.