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Destructive Termites

Despite their small size, termites are one of the most economically devastating pests on the planet. They are well known to every home owner for a good reason. Accurate cost of damage worldwide is impossible to calculate, but estimates put it as high as 40 billion per year. In Australia it is evaluated annual cost of termite damage repairs exceeds $1.3 billion. Studies show that over 60% of Australian homes have been or will be affected by these pests.

There are roughly 3,000 known species of termite in the world. Australia covers a landmass that includes every ideal termite habitat, from tropical rainforest to desert and urban to rural. So it’s hardly surprising that around 360 species are found here. Although less than 30 species are considered pests, termites earned the reputation as the most destructive insect pest in Australia.

Termites are capable of causing large amounts of damage in a very short period of time.The latest CSIRO report says an average of 1 in 5 Australian homes will be affected by termites at some point. That number increases to 1 in 3 homes in high-risk areas like Sydney. The same report shows that 180,000 properties in Australia are damaged each year. Other studies suggest that most homeowners have an 80% chance of living within 25 metres of a termite colony.

The Institute of Australian Architects confirmed the risk when it stated that one-third of homes inspected before sale showed signs of previous termite damage. The Institute also said less than 20% of homes are inspected regularly for termites or serviced by professional pest control companies.

With only 1 home in 5 regularly inspected, could your neighbours be harbouring termites? And will the pests visit your home?

Favourable climatic conditions and large amount of timber building industry continues to use for building homes in Australia are the right combination for termite attack. Construction methods have changed over the years. Some of these changes are due to legislation introduced to minimise termite damage. But problems can still arise.

For example, the use of concrete slabs has helped reduce termite problems. But as a property ages, the need for maintenance increases. Some older slabs, while good when installed, relied on chemicals and concepts that have since been found less effective.

Gaps or cracks in the concrete as narrow as 1mm are enough to make the slab worthless as a preventative measure. Home improvements or renovations can accidentally damage previously effective barriers. Water from leaking taps and broken gutters can change the soil composition reducing the value of chemical barriers.

Older houses used lots of wood in their construction. Even today, houses still incorporate significant amounts of wood when being built and later as decoration. Most of this is softwood and highly desirable to termites.

Termite damage often takes place out of sight. as termites shy away from open and well ventilated spaces. They build tunnels and prefer dark, moist and obscure areas where there is little human activity. In fact, termites usually built their nests in trees, below the ground, and tree stumps. Sometimes they will choose to construct a nest in the roof cavity or under the floor of your house.

These pests will relentlessly feed on the timber of your house without your knowledge. This destruction may continue for  an extended period of time with no visible sign.

Types Of Termites

Not all termites are equal, their species are normally split into one of three categories. These categories are only broad definitions as there is some overlap in habits and habitats.

As the name suggests, dampwood termites need a moist environment to thrive. In a home, this may be provided by a dripping pipe or a leaking gutter. Dampwood termites feed on wood that has rotted, aided in their digestion by fungus attacking the wood. Although their colonies may be large, this type of termite is not often seen. These termites live in the decaying wood they feed on, and not in the soil.

Unsurprisingly, drywood termites prefer a drier environment, obtaining needed moisture from the wood they feed on. They can be destructive but, because the colonies are relatively small, this normally occurs at a fairly slow rate.

The most damage to Australian homes is caused by those in the third category: subterranean termites. They live in soil, getting moisture from it rather than the wood they consume. Subterranean termite colonies can be large and not always located in close proximity to the building they choose to attack. But, they may be connected to it either by underground tunnels or mud-walled surface channels.

Termites Are Beneficial But…

Regardless of their reputation as destroyers of houses, termites are vitally important to life on earth. Whether on the plains of Africa, the forests of South America or bush lands in Australia, termites work ceaselessly to our benefit. Mostly, termites are beneficial to the ecosystem and are an integral part of the bush. But it is in urban areas where their destructive habits are felt most. Their role in nature is to recycle dead trees. Unfortunately termites can’t distinguish between fallen logs and timbers of a house.  However, when their hunger for cellulose is directed at our homes, we understandably object. All too often we inadvertently make it easy for termites to invade.

Nitrogen-rich soil is essential for agriculture. Nitrogen is a common gas but normally found combined with other elements which make it hard for plants to access. Termites are among only a handful of creatures that possess the microbes necessary to release the nitrogen for uptake.

Due to their extensive tunnelling, termites open up the soil. They are the planet’s third major earthmoving creature after earthworms and ants. Their ceaseless activity allows rain to soak into the ground rather than run off uselessly.

Some authorities believe the termites’ constant removal of dead wood and decaying plant matter reduces the fire risk in the outback. The breakdown of cellulose puts important nutrients back into the soil making plant growth possible in arid regions.

There is little doubt that a termite’s ability to consume large amounts of woody material contributes to the well-being of the planet. The problems begin when a termite colony attacks the wood in our homes.

Termites Undergo Incomplete Metamorphosis

This means that, unlike many insects such as flies, they do not go through the egg, larva, pupa, adult cycle. Termite eggs hatch into nymphs which undergo a series of molts until they become adults. The number of molts will vary by species and also according to the eventual role of the adult termite.

The length of the life cycle depends on the availability of food, temperature and, to a lesser extent, the needs of the colony. Pheromones from the queen (or less commonly, the king) control the development of the nymphs, determining whether they will be workers, soldiers, kings or queens.

Pheromones also dictate when winged termites or alates appear. The alates are fertile males and females that swarm from their nests to start new colonies.

When a colony is still new, the queen may only lay as few as 10 to 20 eggs a day. Within a year or two this may have increased to 1,000 eggs a day. Once the colony is fully established, a single queen might lay up to 40,000 eggs daily.

Termites are best known for their ability to consume cellulose, which is abundant in nature, found in wood and plant material. These insects are among the few creatures that possess the necessary bacteria in their gut to break down cellulose for digestion.

Only workers can turn cellulose into food. The other castes lack the bacteria to convert cellulose, so they rely on a food sharing system called trophallaxis. By passing on pre-digested cellulose to their fellow termites, workers feed all the other members of the colony.

Termites are social insects that live in highly organised colonies consisting of castes. Each caste is noticeably different in physical appearance and in the work they do. All colonies have fertile males (kings) and females (queens). A single colony may have more than one of each. Termite queens can still lay eggs at 50 years old, making them the longest-lived of all insects.

The rest of the colony comprises soldiers and infertile workers, which may be male or female. Soldiers come in various sizes depending on the species and are equipped in different ways to defend the nest. The workers will forage for food, tend the nymphs and maintain the nest.

Keenly sought by many predators as nutritious snacks, this pest has learned to stay out of sight even when present in large numbers.

A colony may only have a few hundred termites or multiple nests totalling millions of individuals. The nests can be complex structures complete with rudimentary air conditioning. Size and structure will depend on the species and the environment.


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