Column: Termites are the janitors

Published 6:53 am Thursday, June 23, 2005

By Staff
As in any society, some of Mother Nature's most important members are those that clean up after others. Vultures, opossums and maggots are the morticians disposing of the dead. Various insects and bacteria are the sanitation crew. We humans are pretty good with all that. It's the janitors cleaning up the left over debris that we don't get along with. Those janitors are termites. It's their job to dispose of dead wood and debris to make room for Ma Nature's landscaping projects. The problem is termites can't differentiate between a dead limb and the lumber in our houses. Dead wood is dead wood and their mission is to clean it all up.
Though termites are the most destructive pests in North America, causing more damage to homes than fire, storms and floods combined, most of us know very little about them. This is especially true here in Michigan because we only have one species of termite and they haven't posed the problems that the multiple species of the southern U.S. and Pacific Coast region do. We'd better bone up, though, as the termite population here in southern Michigan is suddenly growing at an alarming rate.
Our termite is called the subterranean termite for they live entirely under ground. Too much oxygen, even the amount occurring in the atmosphere, weakens and kills the worker termites. Underground there's less oxygen as well as a constant supply of moisture, which they also require. Many of us confuse termites with carpenter ants, those big, black buggers that race around on the floors and countertops. While termite behavior and social structure is very ant-like, there is little physical similarity. Termites are lighter in color and their bodies aren't distinctly segmented like ants.
Termites live in colonies that can reach down to twenty feet underground and may contain several hundred thousand termites. Leading the colony is a king and a queen. These are much larger than the other members and colored various shades of brown. Their function is to just hang out and make babies. Also involved in the baby factory are what's called male and female reproductives. They, too, burp out kids but only about ten percent of the total production output. They are a little under half an inch long and are usually dark brown to black. Some have wings, their purpose we'll get to in a bit, and some don't. Next in the hierarchy are the soldiers. These are about an eighth inch long, creamy white with big pincer mandibles. It's their job to guard the colony.
About 95 percent of the colony consists of workers. These look the same as soldiers only without pincers. They are both blind and sterile. They provide all the food, do the construction, feed and groom the others and care for the eggs and young. These are the ones that eat your house out from under you, usually while you're totally unaware. They chew their way unnoticed into a damp board then eat out the whole inside, leaving just an outer shell of wood to hold moisture in and oxygen out.
Since worker termites can't stand exposure to air one of the best preventions is to ensure siding and other house wood does not touch the ground. This doesn't provide total immunity, though. To bridge a gap between ground and wood the termites build shelter tubes of sand and sawdust. These tubes range from a quarter to one inch wide and can extend more than 50 feet.
When a colony has eaten itself out of house and home the previously mentioned winged reproductive members take flight in a swarm. This usually occurs in these parts from April to June. The swarm only lasts about an hour, in which time the reproductives mate and try to find another suitable home. After their hour of frolicking they drop to the ground and their wings fall off. If they got lucky at finding a food source a new colony is underway. Otherwise, all was for naught. How's that for pressure? So, if a swarm of dark, half inch long bugs with big, translucent gray wings comes knocking at your door, you'd best call the Orkin Man. Carpe diem.