Cellulose is the most abundant organic compound on the planet, and it’s the material that gives structural strength to all forms of plant life. For example, plant stems, petioles, wood, veins in leaves, roots, and other fibrous plant structures are made up primarily of cellulose. These, and other cellulose-rich plant structures are slow to decompose after plants die, and dead trees in particular must be cleared from the ground so that vegetation growth can continue. Termites naturally consume cellulose, and therefore, they accelerate the decomposition of dead wood. Without termites, worldwide vegetation growth would largely cease. This is why all termite species on the planet are ecologically essential organisms. However, when humans construct timber-framed structures over land that has been stripped of vegetation, local termite species may adapt to the new urban ecosystem by feeding on structural lumber within homes and buildings. The termite species that successfully adapt to urban and suburban environments in this manner become structural pests, and those that don’t may either feed on remaining pockets of dead vegetation, or die from food deprivation.
Many people believe that trees and other forms of vegetation are largely non-existent in arid desert environments, and therefore, termite pests must not be a major problem in the southwest US. Of course, this is not the case, as there exists numerous desert-dwelling termite species throughout the world, and they feed on many types of dead, and to a lesser extent, live forms of desert vegetation. While vegetation is certainly sparse in the Sonoran Desert, it should be known that the arid climate in the region kills fungal organisms that feed on dead wood, and these fungal organisms are essential to wood decomposition in all non-desert environments. Termite species are diverse and abundant in the desert southwest because they must compensate for the absence of fungal decomposition. Given these aspects of desert ecology, and the continued expansion of urban and suburban environments into undisturbed Sonoran Desert landscapes, it should not come as a surprise to learn that urban entomologists at the University of Arizona consider termites to be the state’s number one pest of homes and buildings, and this will continue to be the case for decades to come.
Have you ever discovered termite damaged woodwork in your home?