Termites live in colonies that are social and can be long-lived. Colonies are composed of castes that conduct all tasks for survival (Figs. 1, 2, and 3). Some termite queens are larger than the length of a human thumb and can lay more than a thousand eggs per day. The king is also long-lived and mates intermittently to provide sperm to the queen. Some of the longest living insects are termites: some termite mounds and their queens are thought to be more than 70 years old and
Aborigine folklore claims some mounds in Australia are over 200 years old. There are no methods to age a queen.
Termites are herbivores, fungivores (i.e., plant or fungus feeders), and humivores (soil feeders). They feed on cellulose, directly from plants, dead or alive, or indirectly from fungus arising from decaying plant material within mounds. Plants are made of cellulose, a polysaccharide that is composed of glucose units. The traditional view is that termites rely on intestinal gut microorganisms for cellulose digestion. However, there is growing evidence that termites also use their own enzymes for cellulose digestion.
Before mating and starting new colonies, new kings and queens, called alates or swarmers, depart the colony and fly (Fig. 2). They mate after landing on the ground. Swarming behavior varies considerably among termite families and species, but occurs most frequently during the rainy season. However, dry-wood termites can swarm during hot days, or sometimes evenings, of summer. A mated king and queen lose their wings and find a suitable nesting site near or in wood where they construct a small chamber that they enter and seal. The queen soon begins laying eggs, and both the king and the queen feed the young predigested food until they are capable of feeding themselves. Once workers and nymphs are produced, the king and queen are fed by the workers and cease feeding on wood. The exchange of food among colony members is called trophallaxis. Social insects exchange food in two ways, stomodaeal and proctodaeal trophallaxis. Termites use the latter method for food and symbiont exchange, mouth to anus. Symbionts are protozoa and bacteria that occur in the hindgut of termites. These microbes help digest cellulose, the major food source for termites.
The reproductive adults have functional eyes, needed for flight and initial finding of nest sites. The blind workers and soldiers live deep in nests, soil, or mounds and do not require or need vision. They already are in contact with or close to their food source.
Termites can also communicate through chemical, acoustical, and tactile signals. Two termite trail pheromones, (Z,Z,E)-(3,6,8)-dodecatrienol and (E)-6-cembrene, have been identified. These messages are produced in a sternal gland on the underside of the termite's abdomen. However, other chemical signals, such as those used for alarm and colony recognition, are produced from other glands located throughout their body. Many termite behaviors (e.g., trail following, alarm, and sexual communication) are mediated by pheromones. Soldiers also produce chemicals that are important for colony defense. Colony recognition and colony spacing are thought to be regulated by cuticular hydrocarbons. These waxy compounds are produced over the exterior cuticle of termites and spread throughout the colony. Termites can also communicate danger by "head-banging" of soldiers, in which they tap their heads in galleries to alert their nestmates.
Termites play a major role in recycling wood and plant material, but their tunneling effort also ensures that soils are porous, aerated, and enriched in minerals and nutrients, all of which improve plant growth. For example, termite activity in the desert areas of west and north Africa helps to reclaim soils damaged by overgrazing. Termites are an important food source for many other animals, including reptiles, birds, and mammals. Termite mounds and trees hollowed out by termites provide shelter and breeding sites for birds, mammals, and other insects.
Termites also contribute to atmospheric gases. The most abundant gases produced are carbon dioxide and methane. Both are greenhouse gases, but they are not produced in sufficient quantities to have negative effects on the atmosphere.
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