ARBOREAL TERMITES: Silent Destroyers
© Tara A. Spears
On my daily dog walks I’ve noticed two HUGE colonies of termites in Guayabitos. The largest nest is easily a meter long- I can’t imagine how many thousands of termites are living there. My first house in Jaltemba Bay was more than 20 years old and had only been a holiday residence. I was quite shocked to lean on a chest of drawers and have it crumble! The wooden furniture looked normal from the front, but all of the interior wood was hollowed out by termites. Since the house itself was made of iron and concrete block, the house was fine but all of the wood furniture had to be removed, including the bed frames. After that experience, I keep a lookout for these silent destroyers.
Tree termites, Neotermes castaneus, prefer to nest in living trees such as coconut palm or other tropic hardwoods. Building a nest in a tree offers the convenience of being close to the food source on the ground, such as dead leaves and branches. Robust colonies of N. castaneus can live in trees and palms for years or even decades before they are discovered. Although the colonies may weaken trunks and branches, the overall health of the host tree is usually not directly affected. The tree nests in Guayabitos must be more than ten years old based on the size.
Termites in tree nests find most of the damp wood they consume on the forest floor. Since termites are plump, slow-moving insects bearing no stingers or particularly powerful pincers, the question arises as to how they commute between their arboreal home and their feeding area without getting picked off by predators. Termites avoid these perils by covering their trails with tubing made of feces, plant matter, saliva, and soil. It’s a brilliant defense mechanism for the insects. These covered highways tend to be placed on a branch’s lower and/or shaded side. Such placement keeps the tropical sunlight from heating up the inside of the tunnel, plus the tunnels are also somewhat protected from rain during the rainy season.
Termite colonies are headed by a queen and a king living inside a royal cell. The presence of eggs and young larva generally indicates the location of the royal cell inside the nest. New termite colonies are founded by alates-young, winged adult termites- which leave an existing mature colony in swarms. After the nuptial flight alates pairs shed their wings and begin to build a new nest. As a rule, new colonies are founded by a single pair of alates. The arboreal termites swarm from late spring through early winter when it is warm and humid. Having witnessed a termite swarm when I lived in south coastal Florida, I still have nightmares 20 years later.
Termite swarms are initiated by a combination of humidity, temperature, and precipitation. Neotermes colonies require higher humidity and regular contact with free water, because unlike subterranean termites, they do not forage in the soil. Swarm flights usually occur at dusk or at night. The Neotermes termites are relatively strong fliers and, like most nocturnal flying insects, are attracted to light. This is why you can find them on your concrete patio if you have a light on.
The role of the soldier and worker termites is to defend the colony so they exhibit aggressive behaviors such as sounding an alarm and biting invaders. Most of the colony work is done by the blind worker and soldier termites. The unseeing termites destroy anything that comes in its way, not just wood. This is the reason that when a property is badly infected by termites you don’t see just damaged wood but wires and other things, too.
In wild jungle areas parrots and hawks are some of the few controls for termite populations. Given that a queen termite can lay up to 30,000 eggs each day, once a colony gets access to your home, it is very difficult (and expensive) to eradicate these nasty pests. The better method is to prevent termites from getting into your home in the first place.