Some people may be willing to believe the claim that not all termites are pests to man made structures, but certainly termites must all eat wood, right? Most termite species consider wood to be an ideal food source, as it contains the cellulose that termites need to survive. Most termites eat both wood and dead plant matter, such as twigs, leaves, and logs. Other termites consume cellulose-containing fungus that sprouts from plant matter that has been chewed and spat back out by mound-building termites. This fungus is also high in protein. Fungus eating termites are all classified as “higher termites,” meaning that they are the most advanced species of termite that exist. There are also many termites species that have become specialized for consuming grass.
Northern Australia contains vast savannah landscapes where termites play an important role. Termites are essential for savannah ecology in Australia as they consume grass and spinifex in large amounts. This helps to minimize plant waste in the region, and consuming dead or dying grass converts worthless plant matter into fertile soil. The termites in Australia’s savanna regions consume a tremendous amount of grass. In fact, the total amount of biomass from grass consumed by termites is equal to the amount consumed by cows and other large mammals in grasslands located elsewhere.
The termites that do consume wood only consume sapwood, which is the outermost layer of a tree. Sapwood contains all of the necessary carbohydrates that termites need such as cellulose, sugars and starches. Heartwood, on the other hand, is the innermost wood of a tree, and it is too hard to be penetrated by a termite’s jaws. Also, heartwood contains toxins that repel termites. In order to digest cellulose, some termites possess digestive enzymes produced by protozoa, while others break down cellulose with bacteria that is shared between termites within a colony.
Have you ever seen fungus sprouting from the top of a termite mound?