Desert termites — not like their cousins — are helpful bugs

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Michael Price, special on the San Angelo Standard-Times

Published 10:17 p.m. CT June 25, 2021

SHUT DOWN

In this photo of Jen Guyton, one of the mysterious “fairy circles” in the Namib Desert that has littered the area with circular, barren patches. Scientists have developed a complex theory using termites and plants to explain what is happening. (Photo: Jen Guyton, AP)

Say the names of certain species of animals around people and you are sure to get a negative answer. Say “rattlesnake” while blind around your deer, say “shark” while swimming in the ocean, or say “bees” when you are with a friend who is allergic to the insects, and you’re guaranteed to hear some carefully chosen adjectives. And when you say the word termites, you automatically think of “house-eating invertebrate monsters”. However, just as not all sharks are cannibals, not all termites are out to eat human habitation. One species of termite that is more interested in the dead outer bark of plants lives here in our great state, and that species is the appropriately named desert termite.

Desert termites are found throughout the Chihuahua Desert in western Texas, southern New Mexico, and southern Arizona. In this dry habitat, this species lives mainly underground. In fact, it will spend most of its life at various depths below the surface.

Desert termites live in surprisingly large underground colonies (up to 39 million termites were reported on an acre in the Texas Panhandle during a three-year study) that have a highly structured hierarchical system. This hierarchy consists of three classes of termites: 1. Workers, 2. Soldiers, and 3. Kings. Worker termites, the most numerous of the three classes, are the individuals who build and maintain the underground tunnels, procure food for the colony and raise the young. Soldier termites protect the colony as you might expect. When a predator breaks through the walls of the underground cave, the soldiers form a line to fend off the predator while the workers endeavor to quickly rebuild the wall. Soldier termites are willing to sacrifice their own lives to protect the colony; All soldiers who are outside the rebuilt building will be left behind.

The third class of termites are the kings, and these are the ones that reproduce. The most senior reproductive animals are known as the king and queen of the colony. All reproductive females are ready and willing to assume the role of queen if the queen is injured or killed.

The desert termite, like all other termite species, is quite small; adult workers are approximately 1/8 of an inch overall length; adult royalty can approach 3/8 of an inch.

Termites are insects, and like others in this group, they have three parts of the body: the head, the chest, and the abdomen. Each of these body parts has a specific purpose, with the head being the area where the eyes, antennae and food appendages are, the rib cage is where the legs and wings are attached, and the abdomen is where the most of the internal organs are housed. As with other insects in the insect group, the skeletal structure is on the outside of their body. This structure is known as the exoskeleton. They have six legs, and some members of the colony (known as the Alates) have two pairs of wings that are used for flying.

Only the females of these colonies are surface active, at least until the seasonal rains come and the royal members of the group rise to the surface to swarm. Your purpose is to leave this colony and start a new one.

The best way to tell the presence of a colony is through the dirt-shrouded tunnel known as a cardboard box, which can be observed attached to its food source. This cardboard is mostly made up of dirt that is interspersed with feces that are linked together by saliva.

In contrast to their hard-pressed cousins, the underground termites, desert termites do not feed on the wood that is used to build houses or other buildings. In fact, this species is known to be useful as it feeds on dead plant parts, especially grasses, which in turn provide the soil with valuable nutrients. Colonies of this type also significantly aerate the soil, which in turn contributes to the welfare of the landscape.

Given that this species is one of the more beneficial insects, consider allowing these native arthropods to improve the welfare of your garden in ways that only nature can design.

Michael Price owns Wild About Texas, an education company specializing in poisonous animal safety training, environmental counseling, and ecotourism. Contact him at wildabouttexas@gmail.com.

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