Bulletin 8 - July 1979: Termites
TermitesBased on notes by Dennis Boocock
Termites, sometimes incorrectly called "white ants," resemble true ants in their way of life, rather than in appearance, and are only distantly related. Classified in the single Order, Isoptera, most of the 1790 species are found in tropical and warm climates, although a few species have established themselves in central Europe as far north as Paris and Hamburg.
The life history of termites is complicated, with a diversity of "castes," the original founders being a "King and Queen." Leaving their birth nest both sexes have rather similar pairs of wings, which they shed after a short mating flight. They then find a suitable retreat to found a new colony. The female becomes enormously distended, like a bloated, soft white sausage, and continuously produces many eggs. The colony builds up slowly at first, but then speeds up.
Being social insects, the workers are the most numerous members of the colony. Their duties are to look after the King and Queen, tend the eggs and young, maintain and build the nest, search for food and feed the soldier termites. Soldier castes defend the nest against enemies and are may be of two types. One has a large head with powerful jaws, while the other has smaller jaws and pointed head. The latter have glands in the head from which they eject a sticky fluid to repel would be attackers. Neither workers nor soldiers are winged.
Some colonies have been recorded active for up to a hundred years and Kings and Queens are believed to be long lived. It is probable that the "Royal Couple" had been replaced during this time.
From an economic point of view there are two types of termites --the subterranean and the drywood termites. It is the subterranean termite which builds the great mounds, as high as 20 feet, inhabiting tubes in the ground rather like an incredibly extensive and complicated underground railway system occupied by many thousands of termite commuters.
The dry wood termite colonies are smaller and live inside the wood itself, which they excavate leaving only a paper-thin layer of wood to protect themselves.
All termites are creatures of darkness capable of creating immense damage which often passes unnoticed until houses, wooden bridges, manufactured goods or crops are destroyed. Most kinds of wood are readily attacked, but they seldom damage living trees. In forests and woods they break down organic debris.
The common species in North Africa and the Middle East are Kalotermes flavocollis, the yellow necked dry wood termite which holds sway from Tunis to Turkey, and Reticulitermes lucifugus, a small moist wood species.
A termite which was found attacking a house in Al Ain was identified at the British museum of Natural History as Heterotermes aethiopicus.
Other species in the area are Eremotermes sabaeus, recorded in Aden, and Microtermes diversus in Aden, Iraq and Iran. The last species is known to be a serious pest, but H. aethiopicus was not doing too badly in Al Ain!
There was a long history of termites causing damage to wooden houses and other facilities in Kuwait, the species responsible being Anocanthotermes vagans. Species of Microtermes are found in Saudi Arabia.
For collecting termites preservation is best done using alcohol.
Editor's Note: A thriving colony of termites was found in a decaying palm stump in the Liwa in February 1979.
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