Wednesday, 19 September 2007
Termites may be considered a pest from a human point of view, but their behaviour and biology is among the most sophisticated and fascinating in the insect world. Like ants, bees and wasps, they are 'social' insects, living in colonies with thousands of individuals of various 'castes' each with a specific function. Most termites are blind and prefer to live in the dark.
The Queen termite is the only individual able to lay eggs - her sole function. She is capable of nothing else since her huge abdomen, bloated with eggs, prevents her from moving. She may produce 2000 eggs or more per day. Living in a chamber deep inside the nest, she is fed and groomed by worker termites who also take care of her eggs, carrying them away for hatching. The Queen may live up to 30 years. Tiny creatures in relation to the Queen, King termites live only to mate with her, and while he is quite long-lived when compared to 'ordinary' members of the colony, their lifespan is usually much shorter than that of the queen. They also assist in grooming and feeding her, and will continue to mate throughout their life, ensuring that a steady supply of new colony members is maintained.
The Worker termites comprise the majority of the population of a nest, and are the ones who do the colony's 'dirty work', building and repairing the nest, grooming other termites and foraging for food. They are the ones responisble for structural damage to timber. Once a worker has eaten its fill of wood, special bacteria within its gut help it break down the normally indigestible material into a 'soup' which it takes to the nest and shares with others. The fearsome Soldier termites guard the nest from predators. They are usually distinguished by their hugely enlarged heads accommodating massive jaws, their main weapon. Some termite species have also evolved formidable chemical weapons. Nasute (latin for 'nosey') soldier termites repel their enemies by squirting then with a poisonous or sticky substances through a prominent nozzle-like protrusion in their heads.
When termite eggs hatch, the young insects or Nymphs are capable of developing into whatever caste is most urgently required by the colony - normally workers or soldiers, or even additional Queen or King termites if more eggs are needed. When conditions are suitable, however, they may develop into a specialised winged caste known as Alates in preparation for establishing a new colony. Alates are the future Kings and Queens of a termite colony. When seasonal, food and weather conditions are just right, winged Alates will swarm from the nest in search of new territory. They are rather poor flyers and depend largely on the wind to carry them along. When a likely nesting location is found, they soon drop their wings, mate and breed new generations of workers and soldiers, starting the cycle again.