To most (if not all) people, termites are a household pest that needs to be eliminated as soon as possible. After all, there’s a reason why termite control is a thriving industry. The ecosystem, however, might have a different say on the issue.
What most people don’t know is that, like all creatures, termites have an important role in the different processes and cycles that occur in nature, not just in a person’s household.
To get you up to speed on why these insects aren’t the ultimate antagonists to your home, here are the effects termites have on the ecosystem.
Along with earthworms and ants, termites are the third member of the trio of groups of soil ecosystem engineers. Termites, in particular, are the dominant invertebrates in tropical soils. They have a major influence on the chemical and physical structure of the soil itself. To be more specific, termites can process a variety of organic plant matter at all stages of decomposition which contributes to the efficient return of nutrients to vegetation.
The maintenance of soil is perhaps one of the biggest contributions termites have to the ecosystem. In particular, termites help loosen the soil and help in its formation.
Loose, crumbly soil allows water to drain freely and prevents waterlogging. Waterlogged soil is bad for crops and plants because it prevents them from undergoing cellular respiration due to the lack of oxygen (plants can’t get oxygen from water). Aside from that, inundated soil enables the activity of anaerobic microbes that produce toxic wastes that break down organic matter.
Put simply, the oversaturation of soil can kill plants. Termites help prevent said oversaturation thanks to their burrowing and movement, which loosens the soil.
Aside from helping plants and crops survive, loose soil makes for better penetration for the roots and allows plants to have an overall stronger support system. When soil is too compact, it often needs modifications and treatment in order to be suitable for planting.
When it comes to soil fertility, termites also have an important role to play because they have been known to mix inorganic particles such as sand, stone, and clay with organic bits of leaf litter, discarded insect exoskeletons, and the occasional wild animal tail. This blending helps the soil retain nutrients and resist erosion.
In connection to that, ant and termite activity contribute to the nitrogen content of the soil. Crops depend on an adequate supply of nitrogen. Most nitrogen is naturally present in the soil as organic content thanks to the activity of termites. Their gut bacteria contain high levels of nitrogen and this gets transferred to the soil when termites dig their tunnels.
Since termites have a number of positive effects on the soil, it is only natural that agriculture is affected. In this regard, termites are like a double-edged sword in that they can be crop pests while at the same time contribute to the high production of crops.
Some studies that examined Laotian villages near the Mekong River found that rice production was higher in areas where termite mounds were present than in areas where they weren’t. This was due to the villagers crushing and spreading of soil from the mounds on their rice paddies before planting.
Termite mounds, in this regard, serve as a natural fertilizer. Apart from that, adult termites are a good food source for aquatic livestock. Termites are collected and fed to the several types of fish the villagers are raising.
If the experience of the Laotian villagers isn’t enough, researchers in Australia have also discovered that termites can help boost the yield of wheat crops in arid climates. They have discovered that fields containing termites have a higher mineral content and water absorption than those without. Tunnels dug by the insects allowed rain to fall deeper into the ground, retaining moisture at three times the rate of normal fields which led to better wheat yield.
Termites are surprisingly helpful creatures when it comes to things relating to soil and agriculture. However, just because they have positive contributions to the ecosystem doesn’t mean you can simply neglect termite control when you see them pestering your home.
They can and will eat through your homes and can leave their structures vulnerable to more damage. Don’t think twice about getting rid of them just because they have some environmental benefits because your home certainly does not.