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Truly amazing

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How often have you heard people say that termites have attacked something or the other at home. So are they pests?

Have you ever seen long reddish trails on trees that may break open if you poke a stick into them? Those are the galleries of termites or ‘white ants’ as we know them. In actual fact, they are very different from ants.

We hardly get to see termites as they are always inside their homes on dead wood which they gorge upon. ‘They must be very tough to be able to eat wood,’ you may think. But they have certain bacteria in their stomach to help them digest wood.

The only time you get to see termites in large numbers is during their nuptial or ‘wedding’ flight. On an evening just after the first few showers of rain you may come across hundreds of winged termites flying all around you. These are the future kings and queens of the new colonies that they would be setting up. The chosen time for this great event is just after the first showers as the soil is then damp enough for them to dig. Male and female partners select each other while on flight and then alight together. But alas, for many of the unfortunate ones, the nuptial flight spells doom as they end up becoming a feast for hungry birds, frogs and lizards waiting to make the most of this opportunity.

Those that have made it to the ground successfully shed their wings, search for a suitable site, and start digging. Hey presto! The royal chamber is ready in no time and the new queen lays her first eggs. The termites that are born here complete the construction of the termite home.

The queen, the largest of all the termites in the colony, becomes an egg-producing machine, laying as many as 30,000 eggs a day! She may live for as many as 50 years. Try calculating the number of eggs she lays in her entire life time!

Truly amazing

Building a home

Truly amazing

Termites deserve an award for being the world’s best architects. They construct their termitaries out of the eco-friendliest of material — mud, their saliva and excreta. What’s more, they build a maze of ducts inside that circulate fresh air constantly.

Some termites in North-western Australia build flat nests, facing the east-west direction. Thus, the broad sides get the cooler morning and evening sun while the very thin sides with hardly any surface area get the scorching afternoon sun. Isn’t that very clever? The termitaries do not get over-heated at all!

Inside their elaborate homes a special kind of fungus grows on their accumulated droppings. The fungal gardens serve as a good source of nourishment for the young ones. Indeed, termites recycle everything, even their excreta!

Besides the king, queen and workers, some of the termites in a colony are born to be soldiers. How does the queen decide which of her babies are to be delegated what tasks? She emits certain chemicals called pheromones that help to produce the right kind of termite — worker or soldier.

The soldiers have large heads and mandibles (biting mouth parts). Here comes the interesting part: they use different strategies to ward off enemies. They may use their strong heads to drum on dry leaves to alert nest mates of a threat. Or they may use their sharp mandibles to bite their enemies — very often invading ants. Or they may use chemical warfare, giving out secretions that are toxic or gummy. Sometimes they use their oversized heads to form a physical barrier, blocking the entry of enemies into the nest. Some termite species do not have soldiers to keep away the enemy. Here the workers themselves form suicide squads when invaded by the enemy. These workers march towards their foes and burst their guts open, shooting out the slimy contents and killing themselves at the same time. What a sacrifice!

Surprisingly, the soldiers are unable to feed on their own. They have to be fed by the workers. The queen too, having a large unwieldy body, cannot move about and so she too has to be fed and groomed.

These well-organised colonies of insects are notorious for playing great havoc in our homes, eating up the wooden furniture or wall panels. But out in the wild, by eating dead wood they recycle valuable nutrients back to the soil, thus fertilizing it. Also, some termites dig as much as 30m deep into the soil in search of water to regulate the humidity in their mounds. This way they help make the soil porous.

So, would you consider termites as friends or foes?

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Printable version | Dec 8, 2019 4:00:52 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/children/truly-amazing/article26088241.ece

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