Did you know that termites don’t smoke? They find it rather dangerous you see.
Termites are capable of producing up to two litres of hydrogen from digesting a single sheet of paper, making them one of the planet's most efficient bioreactors. Termites achieve this high degree of efficiency by exploiting the metabolic capabilities of around 200 different species of microbes that inhabit their nether regions.
In short, termites fart hydrogen.
This phenomenon has not been missed by those ever resourceful people who have made a fine art of making fortunes out of hot air. Televangelists and American presidential hopefuls, however, are mere amateurs. Did you know that the US Department of Energy's most enduring goals which is to replace fossil fuels with renewable sources of cleaner energy, such as hydrogen produced from plant biomass fermentation and, you guessed it, termite farts.
This interesting fact has a down side however that strikes fear in the hearts of wooden legged pirates. Termites eat wood and, you may be interested to know, other cellulose based materials such as paper, cloth, carpets and the banknotes in your wallet.
Bacteria in the termite’s gut break down cellulose polymers into simple sugars and produce hydrogen as a byproduct. Further bacteria use the simple sugars and hydrogen to make acetate which the termite requires for energy.
Termites also use particles from soft plastics, plaster, rubber silicon sealants and acrylics which they combine with saliva for building purposes.
Now this may all be very interesting or, more likely, totally boring information whose only purpose may be to win a smartarse question in a pub quiz.
But beware. I have it on good authority that a new secret weapon of mass destruction is being covertly unleashed upon an unsuspecting world. The next time a house spontaneously erupts in a ball of flame who would ever suspect the termites. Not only that even if someone did “twig” to the termitic involvement interviewing termites to find out who put them up to it is a difficult task. “Not me mate, ask the queen”
You can bet your life the lawyers have copyrighted termites. “What” I hear you say “you can’t copyright termites”
Well I wouldn’t have thought it possible to copyright genomes but there are some empoverished Mexican farmers who have found out the hard way about that one. These days farmers around the world don’t worry too much about locusts, what they really fear is the plague of copyright lawyers who come checking their crops.
But I digress. There are many areas in Bali where termites are a problem. I am aware of several areas on the Bukit where whole estates have serious structural damage caused by termites. Doors and window frames can be a nuisance when attacked but when a staircase or roof structure collapses we have the danger of an ongoing negative survival situation (you can become rather dead I’m afraid).
Termites are closely related to cockroaches and mantids. While there are many species there are two basic types, subterranean termites (order Isoptera which roughly translated from the latin means “horrible little creepy crawly things that live under the ground and keep eating my expensive wooden house”) and dry wood termites (Genera Kalotermes and Incisitermes which translated means “yet other horrible little creepy crawly things that don’t live underground but still keep eating my expensive wooden house”). By far the majority of damage is caused by subterranean termites.
Do you have termites? Is the pope a catholic?
Soon after the first rains of the wet season you may see swarms of flying insects buzzing around lights. Afterwards you may find piles of discarded wings lying on the ground, these are termites swarming to start new colonies.
Infestations can go undiscovered until serious damage is done. Unless there are obvious signs of active infestations, you probably won’t detect termites because they don’t like light and remain hidden from view. They can eat all the inside out of a wooden beam while leaving the outer surface intact. The wood can look solid but if you tap it it may sound hollow or even disintegrate. They can eat their way right through a house through one beam after another. They work 24 hours a day but fortunately they work slowly.
Signs to look for include discarded wings, wood that sounds hollow when tapped, cracked or bubbling paint and termite droppings that look like sawdust (frass). You may also see mud tubes on walls, in crawl spaces or across floors or ceilings. If you listen carefully in the dead of night you may hear the gentle thrubbing of termites passing wind.
Termites have a long light coloured abdomen, elongated head, six legs, feelers and the soldiers have mandibles.
Subterranean termites are around 6 mm long. They live in colonies underground, from which they build tunnels in search of food. They can travel long distances underground. They are able to reach food above the ground level by directly entering wood or by building mud tubes. They are dependent on moisture for survival. They eat wood and other cellulose material. By far the most common type of termite. Colonies can contain up to 1 million members, they have one queen but most eggs are laid by supplementary reproductives.
Drywood termites are larger than subterranean termites being up to 12 mm long. They create colonies in wood with no connection to the ground necessary. They need very little moisture. They eat wood and occasionally other cellulose material. They cause serious damage to structures, often long before they are discovered. Piles of sawdust-like pellets are a distinct sign of infestation. They are not as widespread as subterranean termites. Colonies may contain up to 3,000 members.
There are several ways to protect your property from termites including:
- Treatment of the ground before construction begins
- Use of metal barriers between the ground and wooden elements such as posts or doorjambs.
- Treatment of wood before it is put into place.
- Use termite resistant wood such as Canarium australianum (Turpentine Tree) or Callitris glaucophylla (White Cypress).
- Do not keep wood or old newspapers lying around at ground level.
- Keep moisture away from foundations through good drainage, repair leaking taps or drain dripping air conditioners. Termites need moisture.
- Keep wooden structures away from the ground. Also be aware that termites can get through cracks in concrete.
Be on the lookout for tubes of dried mud about 1 cm wide crossing walls, foundations or other structural areas. It is a good idea to get your property checked every now and again by someone who knows what they are doing. They will need to go right through your house checking all woodwork and bamboo structures. It does take time for termites to do extensive damage so an annual inspection is sufficient.
If you find you have termites the first thing to do is have the termites exterminated by a reputable pest exterminator.
You then should have all the wood work in the house treated with chemicals that termites will not eat. Special attention should be payed to the hidden ends of wooden beams.
You should also get vulnerable woodwork such as the bottom of posts resting on or near the ground modified with termite resistant barriers. In Australia termite resistance is built into all housing construction with widespread use of galvanised steel sheet or column supports.
Take care, the chemicals used for termite treatment can be expensive and there are unscrupulous people who will use none effective chemical substitutes so they can pocket the money.
Beware of guarantees. If your woodwork is treated and the treatment doesn’t perform the pest exterminator may honour their guarantee by coming and treating again but will not pay for replacing wood.
Check your house insurance, it may well not include termite damage. If you have a wooden leg make sure your health insurance covers termite damage.
And finally next time a smart lawyer turns up at your house and starts asking to look in your roof, send him up there with a candle, you might get rid of two pests at once.