Termites, little wood- and vegetable-eating insects, constitute an important food source to many creatures. More than 2,750 species of termites inhabit the globe, endemic to certain countries or otherwise. Only 10 percent of termite species are known as pests. They live in highest abundance within tropical rain forests, where natural termite colonies fall prey to a variety of birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects, spiders and mammals.
Two different types of termites, subterranean and dry wood, appear as light yellow to black antlike insects. Soft termite bodies have equally wide segmented bodies with hairlike antennae, an undefined waists and, in some cases, wings. They live in organized colonies where division of labor consists of reproductive, soldier and worker termites. Baby termites or nymphs can develop into any of the three labor groups. Most termite colonies help the environment by converting plant cellulose into recycled eco-friendly substances and as food sources for a variety of animals.
Mammals and Marsupials
Many animals eat termites, including humans. Swarming termites often leave the nest in early evening, which permits opportunistic predatory behavior from animals within the vicinity. Genets and civets, members of the cat family, have been seen eating termites. Also, other smaller animals such as mongooses, bats and numbats eat termites. Underground creatures such as moles and shrews will eat termites if they happen upon them. Echinidnas, aardvarks and anteaters actively search for termites to eat, and primates have been seen using tools to extract termites. In certain areas of Africa, termites are a popular human food source.
Reptiles and Amphibians
Other animals that take advantage of termite swarms include lizards, frogs and snakes. In Kenya the giant monitor lizard, agamid lizards and skinks have been seen feasting on termites. Geckos, frill-necked lizards and legless lizards feed on termites in Australia. Some blind/worm snakes, such as the eastern blind snake, will live directly under termite-inhabited wood to grab termites and termite eggs as they get hungry. As termites fly in the air, any type of frog nearby will grab them as food.
Insects, Spiders and Nematodes
Ants are serious predators of termites. Six types of ants actively prey on termites. Since ants and termites have similar widespread colonies, it is inevitable that battles will arise. Other insects that eat termites include beetles, flies and wasps. Spiders catch and eat flying termites in their webs; assassin bugs break into termite mounds, stab them and inject them with toxin. Nematodes, unsegmented roundworms, invade termite bodies and kill them.
Hundreds of different birds make meals of termites. When termites swarm, speedy sparrows, swallows, swifts, starlings and weavers will fly to catch them as food. Doves, spotted eagle owls, coucals and chickens will pursue a termite meal on the ground. Even storks will take advantage of a termite swarm if stomachs are empty. Birds may not be able to invade termite mounds, but they can snatch up every one that crawls out.
- Encyclopedia Britannica: Termite
- Texas A&M University: Termite
- The Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation: Opportunistic Predation on Alate Termites in Kenya
- Environorth: Termite Predators
- Encylopedia Smithsonian: Insects as Food
- Henry Doubleday Research Association: Termite Control Without Chemicals
- New York Times: The Assassin Bug Finally Reveals Its Fatal Charm
- University of Florida: Using Nematodes to Control Insects
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Based in Michigan, Keri Gardner has been writing scientific journal articles since 1998. Her articles have appeared in such journals as "Disability and Rehabilitation" and "Journal of Orthopaedic Research." She holds a Master of Science in comparative medicine and integrative biology from Michigan State University.