Termites, they are the enemy of humans. They infiltrate our homes and devour anything made of wood. Their damage can cost homeowners a lot of money. So, naturally, a typical human reaction to the mere mention of termites is a mix of fear and hate….and images of poison gas and tents.
That is the image we are used to, but we need to rethink that. They may be unwelcome miniature monsters to us in our artificial manufactured world, but for the survival of a planet humans are killing, they are a vital part of forest survival.
Termites are an important part of Tropical and Subtropical Forests. Their contribution to the forests is remarkable considering their size. These little macroinvertebrates (animals without a backbone that can be seen with the naked eye) are an important part of ecosystem function. They have a wide distribution in Tropical and Subtropical Forests. They have a mutualistic (win-win) relationship with microbes such as groups of bacteria, archaea, protists, and/or fungi in these forests that enables them to digest cellulose. This ability has made them the dominant invertebrate decomposers for leaf litter and dead wood. They work diligently breaking down the dead leaves and wood keeping fuel for forest fires down and, like all decomposers, keeping the Earth clean of debris that would otherwise pile up over decades and longer.
Besides breaking down soil organic matter termites also regulate soil moisture by moving water upward through the soil aiding the movement of nutrients and decrease transpiration (water loss), called “sheeting”, with their temporary protective structures above ground.
Regulating soil moisture and nutrient movement termites are considered “major ecosystem engineers”. While they perform key ecological functions in tropical ecosystems their contribution to ecosystem function had never really been measured. So researchers conducted a study of termites in Malaysian Borneo (Science Vol 363, Issue 6423
11 January 2019 ) to see how much of an impact these tiny engineers have.
The researchers found that termite activity is strongly affected by variations in rainfall. They studied them before during and after the extreme El Niño drought of 2015–2016. They divided parts of the forest in sections and left some untouched, the controls, and other sectors they suppressed the termite population.
They found that termite activity and abundance in the groups that were left alone more than doubled during the drought. This increase in activity and population resulted in accelerated leaf liter decomposition, elevated soil moisture and greater soil nutrient diversity and higher seedling survival rates during the drought.
In areas with termites during drought the leaf litter decomposition rate increased by 41% making the leaf litter depth lower by 22% as opposed to areas where termites were removed. This is a good thing if you want to keep debris down and the forest clean. This is a significant difference showing an immediate consequence to the whole ecosystem just from a change in termite activity and numbers.
There was a 36% increase in soil moisture. This water retention was mostly at a depth of 5 cm (just under 2 inches). That may not sound like much to you but for plants with shallow roots and young seedlings it’s a great help.
Seedlings normally have a high mortality ate in times of drought but in the tropical forests where termites are active seedling mortality decreases.
The diversity and dispersal of soil nutrients like nitrate, ammonia, calcium, potassium, iron, manganese, and aluminum was greater where termites were active.
The study found that termites have a positive effect on soil moisture and nutrient diversity which has a positive effect on seedling survival.
“Our findings show that termites may buffer seedlings against the negative effects of drought by enhancing soil moisture content and nutrient heterogeneity. Given that droughts are projected to become more frequent and severe with climate change (3), these results suggest that termites will play an increasingly important role in structuring tropical plant communities and maintaining plant productivity and diversity in the future. “
Researchers also stated
“…termites form an essential link between dead plant material and the rest of the ecosystem during dry periods and that no other decomposer group compensates for the functions that termites perform.”
Termites really are major ecosystem engineers. They perform key ecological functions in tropical ecosystems. They make the Tropical Forests go ’round. So termites…they’re good little invertebrates.
Termites are sensitive to variations in rainfall but they are also sensitive to forest disturbances. They are not indestructible. Forest disturbance reduces termite population and diversity. Since, globally humans have reduced tropical rainforests by more than 50%, an area of more than 10 million square kilometers (just under 4 million square miles or 2,470 acres). That is not a good thing. These disturbed and developed areas are likely to be less resistant to drought because of a reduction in termite population. Just because these little guys are gone or reduced in numbers the whole forest is more vulnerable to droughts.
Termites act as a buffer to the consequences of drought protecting and mitigating the effects of drought in Tropical and Subtropical Rainforests. They play an important role in sustaining a forest in hard times and supporting new growth. With Climate Crisis and continued deforestation we need these little ones more than ever. We need to support their populations and maintain undisturbed forests where they can thrive to help offset the increased drought predicted from Climate Crisis. We need to reverse our behavior and have less development and more REforestation to put back our carbon sinks, keep termites happy and healthy which in turn helps the forests.
Termites are some of the little things on Earth that make a difference.
So, while saving termites and keeping them happy and thriving may seem counter-intuitive to you, they are one of the many natural sources Earth has to help fight and offset the Climate Crisis that WE created.
So now who is the destructive pest?