Fiji experienced large termite swarms in 2011. In 2016, they are back.
The swarms engulfed towns across Lautoka, Fiji in September and October of 2016. Residents reported fleeing their homes when millions of termites poured out of the floorboards. People covered their mouths with shirts or other available cloth to prevent inhaling or ingesting the termites. Others made shelters under the covers in their beds. The termites are attracted to lights and swarmed buses and other vehicles on the road. Buses turned off the lights and and turned on windshield wipers to improve visibility in the massive swarms.
Asian SIberian Termite
Photo: Rudolf H. Scheffrahn, University of Florida
This horror show is caused by the invasive Asian Subterranean Termite, Coptotermes gestroi. The Biosecurity Agency of Fiji has been battling the termites for years. The swarms are reproductives that pair with a mate and seek a site to begin a new colony. Since they are attracted to light, homeowners sit in darkness and light small fires as a trap to kill the termites and distract them away from buildings. The smoke from the fires adds another level of darkness to cities in blackout mode.
A single colony can contain over 1 million termites. Residents are requested to contact authorities about eliminating termite colonies found in their homes or buildings. A homeowner treatment that disperses rather than kills the termites can lead to infestation of nearby buildings. Despite spending over a $ Million for control measures, termites continue to plague the country.
False Garden Mantid
Photo: Donald Hobern
The false garden mantid, Pseudomantis albofimbriata, (pictured) is a cryptic predator that lives by stealth. The green coloration allows males and females to blend with their surroundings. The color of males and females and the brightness of the male are comparable to the surroundings. However, the brightness of the female abdomen differs from the rest of her body and the surroundings. The brightness is detectable by male mantids, but not predators that search based on differences in color.
Barry and colleagues* found that as the female matures and becomes laden with eggs, her abdomen becomes brighter and she becomes more attractive to male mantids. Artificially painting the abdomens of females increase their attractiveness to males. The males prefer to approach females from the rear to avoid being taken as prey. The brightness of the abdomen may be an important visual cue for mate finding.
*Barry & Colleagues. Sexual signals for the colour-blind: cryptic female mantids signal quality through brightness.” Functional Ecology 2015, 29, 531–539.
Pestival Termite Mound Display
Pestival is an exhibit with a mission of “redefining humankind’s relationship with the insect world
and reconnecting urban audiences with the power of nature”. The first Pestival in 2009 featured a popular live insect show and exhibits built in collaboration with international scientists. Popular exhibits included a “Bee Cab” and a 3-dimensional structure that captures the inside of the mound of a Namibian termite (pictured). The Termite mound was based on the work of Dr. Rupert Soar (Video) and was conceived using computer 3-D imaging.
The popular Pestival is scheduled to once again tour the UK in 2018 with new exhibits.
Reticulitermes flavipes, Eastern Subterranean Termite
A beach in Florida was closed last week because of insects. Mosquitos transmitting Zika Virus? No, Termites. Termites were discovered in the bathrooms at Okaloosa County Beach. The termites had established colonies in the facia boards but had not yet made it into the roof rafters where structural damage could occur. The county is repairing the damage, replacing the old trim boards with new and treating the structure with insecticides to prevent future damage. They closed the beach to facilitate construction and ensure that visitors were not exposed to the pesticides used in termite treatment. Even though the termite colony was detected in the early stages, the damage and treatment will cost hundreds of dollars.
Photo: Evan Morgan
The West Indian drywood termite is an invasive pest of structures in Australia. First detected in 1966, the Australian government has been battling the species for half a century. West Indian drywood termites are treated by whole house fumigation, an expensive prospect costing about $42,000 per house. This is unaffordable for most home owners. Homeowners who could not afford the treatment might be tempted to let the infestation fester. That would create a much larger problems as termites colonized the neighboring houses. Rather than allow the problem to get out of hand, the Queensland Government pays for the treatment of about 15 buildings
per year at a cost of over half a million dollars per year. This is a bargain considering the damage that might occur if termites were not controlled.
Termites Collapse House
Termites are cryptic and can cause unseen damage to a house. Termites will on occasion, abandon one site and move to another. In the case of a New Orleans house, inspectors found termite damage that needed repair. When the contractor was repairing the house, the roof was braced for the repair. Unfortunately, unseen termite damage to the house near the roof caused the bracing to fail with the collapse of the roof and house. The house is a total loss. Fortunately, no one was injured.
Reticulitermes flavipes, Eastern Subterranean Termite
Wood is a difficult material for organisms to digest. The rotting and decomposition of fallen trees can take years to complete. Wood is mostly cellulose reinforced with lignin. The lignin is refractory to digestion by many organisms and is a barrier to the utilization of cellulose as a food source. The lignin must be processed in order to access the cellulose. Utilizing wood as a food source in termites is not an individual species project but a collaboration of many species.
Termites have special structures in the gut to house symbiotic microorganisms including flagellate species that only exist in the guts of termites. The termites chew wood, grind it into small pieces, coat it with digestive fluid and create a suitable environment for the flagellates to survive. The flagellates contribute digestive enzymes and nutrients such as vitamins to the termites. Flagellates in the genus, Trichonympha, do not act alone. The flagellates themselves have bacterial symbionts that live both externally and internally. Advances in DNA technology have facilitated identification of bacterial symbionts and opened a path to their study.
Termites can host a diversity of flagellate species. The flagellate, Trichonympha agilis has deep invaginations in its plasma membrane that are colonized by bacterial symbionts in the Genus, Desulfovibrio. Desulfovibrio are clearly external, but their close association can facilitate exchange of substances between the bacteria and the flagellate. Bacterial endosymbionts, Candidatus Ancillula trichonymphae, are widely distributed among species in the genus Trichonympha. The endosymbionts are present in the cytoplasm in the anterior portion of the flagellate. The endosymbiont complexes found in termites are complicated and will require years of study to comprehend their functions and relationships.
Strasser & Colleagues. ‘Candidatus Ancillula trichonymphae’, a novel lineage of endosymbiotic Actinobacteria in termite gut flagellates of the genus Trichonympha. Environmental Microbiology (2012) 14(12), 3259–3270.