Termite Species in South Africa

Termite Species in South Africa

Termites are considered to be the most destructive insect pests in the world. Many buildings and structures are damaged by these pests each year resulting in huge financial losses.

There are various different species of termites in South Africa but only a handful cause problems to properties:

  • Neotermes spp (Dampwood Termites)
  • Coptotermes spp (Subterranean Termites)
  • Cryptotermes spp. (native) (Drywood Termites)

Of the above, it is the Coptotermes and Cryptotermes species that are the termites that cause the most damage.

Termite Society

The basic castes in a colony are queens, kings, workers, soldiers and alates.

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Termite Queen and King

Giving life to the colony

Termite Workers

Termite Soldiers

The colony’s defence

The future Queens and Kings

Coptotermes spp.

Family: Rhinotermitidae (subfamily Coptotermitidae)
Genus: Coptotermes
Type: Subterranean.
Castes: Queen, king, soldier, worker, reproductive.
Nest type:

  • Mud-tunnel builders: Due to the fact that they need food sources, they are required to sometimes move above the surface of the ground. This is when they build mud tunnels. These mud tunnels serve two purposes, firstly, as previously mentioned, to control the humidity in the air in order to prevent desecration and secondly to protect them from natural enemies such as ants.
  • Soft bodied insects that rely on high humidity and moisture in the air to survive as they have a very permeable “skin” which leads to constant moisture and gas exchange through it. Within the soil they can control the humidity in the air and thus create a perfect living environment for themselves.
  • They nest underground (hence the term “subterranean”).
  • These termites will move about below the surface of the ground as much as possible and build tunnels for shorts distances to get from one point of cover to the next making detection challenging.

Distribution: Although found predominantly in Gauteng and the Western Cape, these termites are widely spread throughout South Africa.

This is one of the most destructive termite species in South Africa. It attacks all timber structures in buildings and damages trees.

Cryptotermes spp.

Family: Kalotermitidae (subfamily Cryptotermes)
Genus: Cryptotermes
Type: Drywood
Castes: Queen, king, soldier, reproductive.

Nest type: Dry wood termites live inside wood. If a piece of lumber is infested with dry wood termites, the whole colony is sealed inside that wood.

Distribution: Although found predominantly in KwaZulu Natal, these termites can be found throughout South Africa.

If a piece of lumber is infested with dry wood termites, the whole colony is sealed inside that wood. Galleries are eaten from the inside out until all that is left is the outside shell of the wood, making a dry wood termite infestation very hard to detect.

Activity is usually detected when is too late and usually requires a piece of the wooden structure to be replaced as well as a large part to be treated.

Neotermes spp.

Family: Kalotermitidae (subfamily Neotermes)
Genus: Neotermes
Type: Dampwood
Castes: Queen, king, soldier, worker, reproductive.
Nest type: Dampwood termites generally live in damp rotting logs or rotten pockets in dead or living trees.

Distribution: These termites can be found throughout South Africa, infesting wood with high moisture content.

  • Neotermes are a lot like leaf cutting ants in their behaviour.
  • They differ from the other two types in their food preference. Where sub-terrainians and dry wood target wood, harvester termites feed mostly on grass, which makes them more of a headache for people with lawns.
  • However it has been known that they can target thatch roofs, which can also leads to costly damage.
  • One major difference from an identification point of view is that harvester termites, although soft bodied, are sclerotized which means that their “skin” is a bit hardened and as a result not as permeable, making the more resilient to desecration.
  • These termites are darker (yellow to dark brown) than the other two types (whitish-creamy) and run around above the surface freely, much the same as ants.


Sabi Sabi Wild Facts: Termites

For a lot of people around the world the word termite strikes fear. Termites have the negative and well-earned reputation of eating houses. But out here in their natural environment they are a keystone species – and by keystone I mean that the entire environment relies on termites to survive.

Termites are the oldest known organised community on the planet – they have been traced back 300 million years. These tiny little creatures are no longer viewed by scientists as millions of individuals making up a colony but instead are seen as a super organism. They work together to form one of the most spectacular communities on the planet.

Termites can be split into 2 distinct groups, those that eat wood, the macrotermes, and those that eat grass, the microtermes. For this Wild Fact I am going to concentrate on the macrotermes as they are found all over Sabi Sabi and are responsible for the massive mounds all over the reserve.

Members of a macrotermes termite community are split into a number of roles such as workers, soldiers and a king and queen. Each termite has its job which is carried out 24/7. The workers collect wood and tend to gardens, the soldiers are constantly on guard waiting for any danger so that they can protect the colony, and the king and queen have the job of fertilising and laying eggs respectively.

Do wood eating termites actually eat wood? Partly…the workers gather wood by chewing it and swallowing it, but due to the hard lignin in the wood they cannot digest it. So they return to the mound and take their faecal pellets and join them into a ball which resembles a brain (with many grooves). They then take fungal spores of a fungus called termitomyces, which only grows in termite mounds, and plant it in the chewed up wood. The fungus then digests the wood and the termites eat the fungus.

In order for the fungus to grow it needs constant humidity and a temperature of around 30 degrees Celsius. The termites maintain the temperature by opening and closing chimneys in the mound, using their metabolic heat during cold times and having porous walls to allow the wind to clear out excess heat. Humidity is maintained by tunnelling down to the water table in order to release water vapour into the colony. The deepest tunnel found was 30 metres deep and the tallest mound was a staggering 14 metres high.

One of the many things we still have to figure out is how termites communicate. On days when emergences take place, all colonies within the vicinity somehow have set a time when they will let their flying reproductives out of the mound. For example on the 20th November at 16h00 all the same species emerge from their respective colonies making sure that they mate with a male/female from another colony to ensure that genetic diversity continues. We don’t even fully understand how communication takes place within a colony let alone between colonies.

These fascinating colonies will live for around 80 to 100 years before dying out. The mounds are then used by birds for nesting, snakes for hibernating, wild dogs and hyenas den in old mounds, warthogs sleep in them at night and nocturnal creatures like porcupines and honey badgers will use them during the day. Even while colonies are active they still have a multitude of uses as termites are eaten by many different animals, monitor lizards lay their eggs inside the mounds as the temperatures are perfect for incubation and the mounds are responsible for the germination of many seeds of trees! What an EPIC little creature the termite!

1. Insects, including termites, are the most successful group of living creatures in the world today. Termites are the only insect order in which all species are highly social. They have been on Earth for over 50 million years, and although they are sometimes called “white ants”, they are not ants, nor are they closely related to them..

2. In a termite colony there is a caste family structure: the workers – blind, sexless nymphs: the soldiers – with large heads and long jaws: and the reproductives including the queen.

3. The termite queen is the largest of all individual social insects. She produces one egg approximately every 3 seconds.

4. Just before the rainy season, some of the worker termites complete their development and become winged adults. These leave the nest in swarms and eventually land on the ground, shed their wings and mate, and create new colonies.

5. Termites are probably the most efficient creatures contributing to decomposition in the bushveld. They are also an important food source in Africa.

6. The termite species Macrotermes are the builders of nearly all the large termite mounds in Africa. There are many wonderful examples of these termitaria at Sabi Sabi. Macrotermes termites are fungus-growers, bringing plant material back to the colony, chewing it to a pulp and using it to cultivate the fungus on which they feed.


Why termites build such enormous skyscrapers

There is a new theory to explain why termites build such tall mounds – and it suggests architects could take inspiration from the tiny insects

  • By Niki Wilson

10 December 2015

Across the forests and prairies of Asia, and vast savannahs of Africa, live secret societies of architects. They are masters of construction, their sophisticated and innovative green-energy designs perfectly capturing the current trend for environmentally friendly construction. And yet these architects don’t like to share their secrets: exactly how – and why – they build their towering constructions has until recently remained somewhat mysterious.

Who are these master builders? They are the mound-building termites. Although they resemble whitish brown grains of rice with big heads and hedge-trimmers for mouthparts, these insects are ecological heavy hitters. Termites control a significant portion of the flows of carbon and water through dry savannah ecosystems, says Scott Turner, a professor of biology at the State University of New York. “They can build anywhere there is grass and water.”

Scientists have wondered why termites build mounds that can be 30ft high

Part of the reason termite mounds are the focus of so much scientific attention is that the insects don’t really live inside them. They choose instead to build their nests – which can be home to thousands or even millions of individuals – in the ground below the mound. In fact, they only travel into the mounds to repair them and defend the city below from invading ant armies and other threats.

For decades, scientists have wondered why termites go to all the trouble of building mounds that, for some species, can be 30ft (9.1m) high. There have been hypotheses, but in recent years, new science has debunked some of them. Engineers, biologists, and architects that study termites are now developing a new theory to explain the spectacular mounds – and their findings may help revolutionise the way we construct our own buildings.

Like us, termites build an environment that suits them rather than adapting to their environment. They sometimes live in arid regions that would dry out their bodies, for instance: their mounds help counteract the problem by maintaining an environment that is cool and humid.

The humidity isn’t just important to the termites. The termites make a living farming a fungus (Termitomyces) on structures known as fungus cones. The fungus helps breakdown dead plant and woody material into more digestible and nutritious food for the termites, and they in turn help maintain the environment for the fungus. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement.

The mound is like a physiological extension of the termites themselves: a giant lung

There’s a lot of hustle and bustle in the termite nest, and both the fungi and the termites produce a lot of carbon dioxide. The problem, says Hunter King, a postdoctoral student at Harvard University, is that eventually they need to get rid of it.

Though there has been previous research investigating how carbon dioxide is swapped for oxygen in the mound, King says that in those studies, nobody measured the flows directly.

That’s why King, along with colleague Samuel Ocko from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and supervisor Lakshminarayanan Mahadevan from Harvard University designed a study that would allow them to directly measure temperature, carbon dioxide and humidity in the mounds of Odontotermes obesus termites.

Turns out, it’s tricky to take gas measurements within a termite mound.

It’s a lot of work to build a mound, and so naturally, termites go to great lengths to make sure it has solid defences. It’s that defence system – like a state of the art burglar alarm – that makes measurements inside so difficult to take.

“You have about five minutes before they attack,” says Hunter, who with Ocko designed a probe sensitive enough to record the information they needed before the termite repair team came and smeared it with sticky mud blobs. Not only did the probe need to record data quickly, it also needed to be affordable enough to replace and repair after the termites gunked it up many, many times over.

Though some sensors were lost, the team gathered the information they needed. What they found dispelled previously held ideas that the mound functioned like a kind of passive air conditioner. In fact, it appears that one of the most important functions of the mound is gas exchange. The mound is like a physiological extension of the termites themselves: a giant lung.

The nest is actually constructed to prevent the kind of large air flows through it

King and the team found that the architecture of the mound inhales and exhales over a 24-hour period. During the day, the outer tunnels of the mound are heated more rapidly than the deeper tunnels and chimneys, pushing air up the outside and down the middle. This creates a circular current that reverses at night as the outer walls lose heat more quickly. As the air flows through the mound, carbon dioxide is flushed outside through tiny holes in the mounds exterior walls, and oxygen enters the mound the same way.

The termites are using the natural daily temperature cycles to do the work of ventilating the mound for them – essentially creating a type of engine that requires no energy input from the termites themselves. This was one of the most inspiring findings of the project for King, who says that it appears one of the primary functions of the mound is to facilitate the exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen, as opposed to regulating temperature.

This is a conclusion that fits with Scott Turner’s previous work, says King. Turner discovered that in the termite species Macrotermes michaelseni – found throughout most of Southern Africa – the mounds and nest are two very distinct air spaces. “The nest is actually constructed to prevent the kind of large air flows through it. It makes the air safer in the underground nest,” says Turner. So previous theories that the mound was designed primarily to control nest temperature are not quite right.

King has just returned from Africa, where his probes battled the termites in the mounds of the species Turner studies. His data remains to be explored, but he suspects that his new results may confirm the lung theory in another species. As for whether this newly discovered engineering feat might have human applications, “I’m hopeful that the thing we’ve described is useful to somebody,” says King.

In the meantime, Rupert Soar, an engineer and professor at Nottingham Trent University, UK, and one of King’s collaborators, says the study provides a wealth of areas to build from. “[The mound] is losing heat far faster into space at night than it is gaining during the day from the sun beating down on it. I just thought that was amazing.”

If we could do that with buildings, we’ve really cracked it – we’ve done something that people haven’t been able to do for generations

Soar is interested in the role that the tiny holes in the exterior walls play in dispersing carbon dioxide. He explains that right now, when we seek to control the internal environments of our office towers, homes and shopping malls, we need to use powered fans, pumps and other ventilation systems to maintain the internal environment.

“The termites have created this specially structured skin that allows the free exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen, but conserves this temperature and moisture regime that they need inside. If we could do that with buildings, we’ve really cracked it – we’ve done something that people haven’t been able to do for generations,” says Soar.

Imagine not having to pay the energy bills for those whirring fans and chugging ventilation systems! It’s insights like these that continue to inspire Soar to look to termites for creative engineering solutions.

As of late his work is focused on the fungus cone, a structure resembling brain coral located deep within the nest. The cone is made up of the comb-like structures on which termites garden the fungus. In collaboration with Turner, Soar discovered that as the fungus grows, its surface becomes covered with a “hyphal mat” of tiny hair-like cilia. “What we’ve discovered is that this fungus cone has an ability to clamp the humidity levels inside the termite mound, at a very specific level.”

Soar says that if we are able to understand how this mechanism works, people might develop materials that could be used to control and regulate excess humidity within a building. It could be another technology that further reduces the energy our buildings need to suck from the grid.

It could be a technology that reduces the energy our buildings need to suck from the grid

But the real breakthrough, says Soar, would be in understanding how the mounds are built in the first place.

With hundreds of thousands of termites running about, how do they coordinate their efforts to build mounds at a scale so much larger than themselves? Is there a tiny sergeant barking orders that only termites can hear?

It turns out there is no head engineer or master architect directing the masses, says Judith Korb, a professor at the University of Regensburg, Germany. She studies the evolution of cooperation in termites and other species. “What you really have is self organisation.”

What this means, says Korb, is that each individual is pre-programmed to carry out a certain behaviour. She says mound-building looks like this: a termite will grab one soil particle, mix it with water and saliva and cement it in place. The next termite will come along and put their soil blob down next to the one previous, and this continues until eventually a wall is built. However, soon there are too many termites walking around with soil blobs, and this results in a termite traffic jam.

At that point, termites give up and just drop their blobs where they are. Then another termite blob-drops next to them, beginning another structure. Eventually walls and tunnels connect, and at some point, a mound almost magically appears.

The mechanism by which this building chaos eventually becomes a magnificent mound is not well understood. Some have wondered if termites emit a building pheromone that helps them organise.

Perhaps termites are not just master builders, but master plumbers too

But Soar thinks the answer might be simpler than that. He wonders if termites have a genetically ingrained sensitivity to moisture that helps them do everything from building to maintaining the mound. For example, he says that when building, termites will only lay down their soil particle next to another that has a very specific moisture content. Otherwise, they move on.

Could moisture act like a central computer system, providing termites with information about everything from where to lay a soil blob when building, to how stuffy the mound is, and to how much ventilation is going through it? Imagine a scenario where a termite senses the mound is too dry, and goes to look for a hole to repair, or a wall to thicken.

Soar says it’s very early days in the development of his theory, but it’s exciting to think that something as simple as moisture could have repercussions throughout the mound. Perhaps termites are not just master builders, but master plumbers too.

Regardless, it’s certain termites have much more to teach us – particularly as we continue our efforts to better harness the power of the sun and wind to construct the buildings of the future.


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