Middle of dry season, hot and dry as expected, but out of nowhere the heavens open and we are blessed with a shower. No matter how small, any amount of moisture at this time of year can trigger something fascinating…..Clouds of tiny insects emerge from the ground, and disperse everywhere, and I mean everywhere.
These delicate, soft bodied insects are subterranean termites swarmers (Genus: Reticulitermes), or locally known as wood lice here in Belize. This phenomenon is seasonal in some parts of the world, but here in the tropics it is usually an environmentally triggered event, with frequency dependent on region, species and colony size.
These clouds of insects fly aimlessly on wings much larger than their bodies and float where the wind takes them, like grains of pollen, with slightly more control. Their extra-large wings serve their purpose for gliding on the breeze, but then pose a problem. When a termite reproductive (aylate), finds that small crack in the soil, and try to squeeze in, this is where the mess begins. To better enable the termite to go in search for their new home underground, they shed their wings and start their own form of cave exploration, except this is for survival of the species, so it is serious business and this is where the persistence of these pesky critters comes into play. Trapped in your home they will crawl around in search of that special place to call their home until their bodies finally give up the ghost, but that can take days, and the wings and sweeping never seem to end.
Termites are R group reproduction strategist, as opposed to the mighty Ceiba, which are strong and few, use K strategy, the termite are many, but only the few survive.
After 2-4 years a subterranean termite colony is mature and produces swarmers (aylates). The number produced is proportional to the age and size of colony. Only a small percentage of swarmers survive to develop colonies, most fall prey to birds, toads, other insects and my favorite, fish food.
Now that we know what these winged creatures are, let us discuss the Termite in more detail. They are social insects that live in colonies in the soil,( hence the subterranean part of their name) , although here in Belize there is enough moisture in the air to support Ariel colonies, which are the round dark colored nest we see high in trees. The termite colony is made up of three caste, the reproductive, workers and soldiers. The swarmers we are discussing are only for reproduction of colony, but the workers which make up the bulk of the colony are the most destructive insect pest of wood. They cause billions of dollars of damage each year worldwide to our most valuable passion, our home.
In nature however termites are beneficial as they break down cellulose into usable nutrients that enriches the soil. The biomass resulting from this process is recycled to the soil as humus, making the termite one of the most important decomposers in nature.
Termites have a voracious appetite, and get their nutrition from wood, or any material containing cellulose (paper, cotton, burlap or other plant products). Most termite species cannot digest this cellulose directly and depend on single celled protozoans and bacteria living in their hindgut for help.
Termites must also protect themselves from temperature extremes and attacks from ants above ground with mud or shelter tubes. These are made from bits of soil, wood debris held together by salivary and fecal material. No comment.
Termite reproductive vary by species from black to pale yellow, with most ranging from ¼ – 3/8 inch in size. They are often mistaken for ants, which can be a costly mistake. Ants and termite reproductive usually swarm under similar conditions, but control of these insects is very different, so proper identifications will be critical. Please see Diagram below.
Control methods are many, but inspection and home maintenance will help reduce the potential of a termite infestation, and prevent possible entry, as we are not trying to eliminate the termites from the environment, just keep them out of our home. Some good practices are to move wood or lumber far away from the home, especially making sure there is not wood to soil contact around your home. There should be several inches of space between your siding and the soil line. Keeping shrubs pruned back from the home, and eliminating any moisture accumulation in and around your home will be beneficial as well.
Frequent inspection around the structure looking for their mud shelter tunnels should be a constant activity, if tunnels are found, brush them away and apply a simple solution, such as a 20% mixture of Clorox and water can be used for control. This is only a mild deterrent, as a properly labelled insecticide would be a longer lasting solution, but I find that frequent application and constant inspection are a more friendly environmental solution. Remember, don’t stop inspecting they will try another entry point, but with enough agitation, they will seek other food sources that you did not pay to build.
Wiley Forrest Tackitt