Wondernose: What insect can build mud houses over twenty feet tall?

by Rebecca Martin | Oct 14, 2021 | 0 comments

Termite mound
Termite nest, ©Alfotokunst/Dreamstime.com

That sounds pretty magnificent, doesn’t it, Wondernose? And really it is, but that isn’t the only dwelling place these insects have. They are very widespread with around 2,000 species in the world.

The fascinating part about these insects is how they work together. They are divided into three classes, or castes, and each one has a very important part. One is reproducing. Another is protecting the house, and these are often called the soldiers. The third caste is the workers, the busiest of them all.

Workers have to take care of the young. Actually, in some species, the king and queen are kept in a royal cell where the queen lays eggs at the rate of several thousand per day.

So, Wondernose, you thought of bees. It’s true, bees do have queens and workers, but this isn’t the insect we’re thinking of today.

Imagine how busy those workers must be carrying away those eggs. Each egg goes to a specially designed cell where workers take care of them as they hatch into larvae. The workers are also responsible to enlarge the nests, make the winding tunnels, or sometimes just simply do repair work.

The good part is there are also thousands of workers in a colony. Oh, you heard that word colony and thought of ants. That is a good guess, Wondernose. Our insect is very similar to an ant in many ways. Some people even mistake them for ants.

Workers also need to groom and feed the soldiers. Strangely, when it comes to themselves, the soldiers are completely dependent on others. With their hard heads, powerful jaws, and strong legs, they have one purpose—to protect their colony. Their chief predators are ants, but they also have a host of other enemies who wouldn’t need a second invitation to a lunch of our mystery insects. With their added protection, soldiers are slightly larger than the workers. The workers’ bodies are white and very soft, therefore, more susceptible to a hungry predator. Being so dependent on each other, these insects are a good example of working together, all filling their different roles.

Now to get back to their dwelling places—they live in many parts of the world, but especially flourish in warm countries. Here in North America we have about forty-five species.

Are you wondering why you have never seen these huge mud houses, Wondernose? You most likely don’t live in a tropical country. Actually, you don’t have to go to some far-away land to see these insects. They might be in your backyard—just not in some big mud house. The northern species aren’t as architecturally-inclined as their southern relatives who build nests up to twenty-six feet (8 m) tall, by mixing soil and saliva. Ours prefer wooden houses like logs, stumps, fence posts, and basically any wood object or—oh, you have it—termites! That’s correct, Wondernose.

Yes, termites are widely known for the damage they do to houses and other wood structures. They are a pest and highly destructive when they tunnel about in wood, leaving only a paper-thin exterior shell. Their foraging for wood, which, by the way, is their food, can be expensive, especially when they get into houses. They’ll eat anything from books, paper, and cloth, to the complete wooden structure of a house.

In tropical countries, some species also eat living trees. It is estimated that termites can do as much damage yearly as fire does.

In their natural role, though, termites are decomposers and highly beneficial. Mostly they live in dead trees, logs, and stumps, helping them decompose. The next time you take a walk in the woods and see an old stump or log, try to break it open. If you see white ant-like insects, you have found some termites. They live in logs and stumps, eating the wood as they tunnel through it. Eventually the tree decomposes, and their job is done.

Termites are also an important food for some animals and birds. Each year, thousands of young kings and queens swarm from their nests. Each is equipped with a set of delicate wings to fly away and form new colonies. These winged individuals are called alates. Birds and dragonflies feast heavily on these swarming alates. Immediately after their flight, they lose their wings. Woodpeckers and other animals are also able to eat termites from their wood or mud nests. This is all part of God’s plan to keep one insect from becoming too plentiful, besides providing a good food source for other animals. We are thankful for the ways nature helps keep these insects in their natural role.

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