Termites – how do they come to be?
Termites are the ultimate green recyclers (and even the ultimate pests) and have been around for millions of years. These creatures might be blind and tiny, but they are crucial players in the ecosystem. They are soil engineers that maintain the diversity of soil microbes, plants, and animals. Termites belong to the order Blattodea and are closely related to cockroaches.
They are eusocial insects, and for a long time, it was not known that they were related to cockroaches (they were classified at the infraorder Isoptera). Termites are found across the globe, and till date, 3,106 species of termites have been described. Termites are hemimetabolous insects, and for a long time were confused with white ants and flying ants. Termites have straight antennae, four same-sized wings, broad thorax and broad abdomen. We know that termites eat wood and are blind, but what else do we know about this insect that has managed to survive for millions of years?
Termites can be considered as ‘social cockroaches’, and are found anywhere and everywhere. In the natural world, they are found in the soil and in the barks of trees. In the man-made cement jungles, termites are found in buildings and other places of human settlements. Termite populations are the densest in warm, tropical regions (nearer to the equator). Most species of termites have adapted according to the changing climate and human settlement patterns.
Termites are detritivores – which means they look for dead plants and trees to eat. They get nutrition from cellulose, which is commonly found in wood. Their ingenious division of labor and social behavior has allowed them to thrive for millions of years, and scientists are still trying to work out the details of how these social insects survived so successfully. Termites might be exclusively thought of as pests by us humans, but they are highly interesting creatures! The life cycle of a termite is interesting, as it is different from the other social insects (like ants and bees) that we commonly hear about.
Termites – from eggs to larvae (or nymphs)
Termites are social insects like bees and ants. The only difference is that in termites any caste (which determines the role they will have in the colony) can be male or female. They also undergo only incomplete metamorphosis (unlike bees and ants, which undergo complete metamorphosis). In other social insects (like bees, wasps, ants) all the workers and soldiers are females. Termites swarm when it is time to look for a mate – this is commonly seen in the summer months. Termites mate only after they have found a suitable spot to start the colony.
The king and queen termite mate after a brief courtship ‘dance’ during flight. The queen termite is larger in size than the king termite, and both lose their wings after mating. The queen termite lays around 20 eggs in the early days, but later can lay up to thousands of eggs a day, and these eggs hatch into larvae (nymphs). The nymphs can become worker termites or soldier termites depending on the temperature and pheromones the eggs had been exposed to. The king and queen termite never leave the colony, and stick around for almost three generations of the termites after them. There is no competition for sperm or mating as the king and queen continue to mate for life (for around 10 years). They are taken care of by the worker termites; so the queen’s only job is to produce more and more eggs as the years pass by. Termite mating might sound very complicated and alien, but the functioning of a termite colony is perfect and well-planned!
Incomplete Metamorphosis and Molting
Termite nymphs or larvae will resemble the adult termites quite a bit, but only through a series of molts or instars will gradually grow to become (and look like) an adult termite. The end result of molting is a nice mature termite ready to take on its role in the colony with gusto.
Termites – soldiers and workers
Termite nymphs turn into soldiers or workers depending on the different temperatures the eggs had been exposed to. Pheromones also control the chances of the nymphs turning out to be soldiers or workers.
Worker termites handle the responsibility of getting food, feeding, managing storage and looking after the nest. They also maintain the order of the younger termites.
Soldier termites have the sole responsibility of defending the nest. They have powerful modified jaws, but cannot feed themselves and so are fed by the workers. The soldier termites can spray noxious, sticky secretions at their enemies or predators to protect the colony.
All termites (i.e soldiers and workers) apart from the king and queen are sterile. After the colony has thrived for a while, the queen termite will begin producing reproductive alates (winged young kings and queens). These will then proceed to mature and will swarm out to start another colony in the summer. Termites thus ensure that they remind us of their presence wherever we are by being somewhere nearby!
Swarming – the cycle continues
Swarming is just as interesting as it sounds – the reproductive alates fly out of the colony and the young kings and queens proceed to mate after finding a suitable spot for a colony. Talk about pre-planning! The termites then start their own colony, and the cycle continues. Swarming takes place around once a year, and it is to make sure the tiny blind creatures get their presence established in other areas as well!
Viva la Termites?
Termite workers or soldiers live up to only two years, while the queen can live for a decade under optimum conditions. The ingenious social behavior and life cycle of termites, however, ensure that the colonies are thriving in different parts even if the members of one die out. Swarming (as mentioned previously) thus guarantees that one colony spreads out to other places as well, ensuring the continuity of the species. It is no wonder that termites are found everywhere on Earth, except Antarctica!
Termites and the ecosystem
For humans, termites are just annoying pests that eat up all our furniture (no surprise why we get annoyed). But termites are extremely important in the ecosystem, and they literally maintain the continuity of life forms. They burrow busily in the soil, creating spaces for air and water and thus allow plants to grow and obtain the required nutrients. Termites also eat up dead plants, making sure the ground is clear for new plants to grow. These soil engineers are expert decomposers that influence the distribution of natural resources such as soil and water in the landscape.
They maintain the health of the soil – keeping it moist and aerated (the tunnels they end up burrowing allow the passage of air and water). Termites thus also influence the health and diversity of the plants, which in turn impact the diversity of the animals that eat them. Imagine nature without termites – dead plants would pile up, the soil would lose its properties, new plants wouldn’t grow and the ecosystem would get seriously messed up! It is thus important to recognize the very crucial role these tiny blind insects play in nature – they might just eat dead plants but they do a whole lot of good by doing so! Termites might be tiny, but they are a force to be reckoned with – and definitely not to be ignored.