Termite Damage in my Eucalyptus (Gum) Trees
I have always admired the ability of termites to chomp their way through fallen trees in the wild, grateful for their assistance in clearing the land of potential fuel for bushfires. Eucalyptus trees are particularly volatile in fires, so we strive to keep our land free of fallen dead branches.
Termites play an important part in nature. I failed to realize however that termites in Australia are equally active in living trees as they are in those that are weak or dead.
Imagine a huge and majestic eucalyptus tree towering above your garden, offering shelter from the searing heat and providing welcome protection for more vulnerable plants thriving in its dappled light.
For years it bends and twists in raging winds before regaining its stature and stretching itself just a little more in the lull before the next storm.
Then one day as the wind builds, the entire trunk snaps like a twig and its many branches and millions of leaves crash to the ground.
Such is the power of termites.
At least one recent report claims that more than 80 percent of eucalyptus trees in northern Australia are now being hollowed out by termites. I know at least one tree in my garden suffered a similar fate.
When my huge tree fell it miraculously missed my car parked in its shade, slipped graciously alongside a garden of berries, then kissed the leaves of a tree holding my daughter's tree house standing just within its reach.
The open wound revealed a shredded mess contained within no more than half an inch of remaining trunk. Yet there was no hint of ailment in the leaves or branches. Somehow the nutrients needed by the top of the tree were still provided despite the hollowing trunk. Or perhaps the feast had been so fast and furious that the termite damage was executed in less time than it would take for leaves to fade and branches to fall.
When we chopped up the fallen tree we found the damage restricted to a surprisingly small length of the trunk. Decimation of the circumference was thorough, but little progress had been made vertically. The termites had dropped the tree just as effectively as a forester with a chainsaw or axe.
With so many gum trees surrounding our home we are now faced with the challenge of trying to identify others that might be currently under attack.
To guard a house and garden from termites
If you live in a house on a small block of land, it is possible to use products like this to help detect termites in your garden - so you can eliminate them before they damage your home. However if you live on acres with plenty of trees and you already know you have termites in the area, it is best to just concentrate on monitoring the perimeter of the house.
What Termites Look Like
What exactly is a Gum Tree?
When living overseas, I often had people asking me about the 'gum tree tree'. "Did you have a gum tree tree at your house?" or "Have you ever seen a koala in a gum tree tree?"
So, for those of you living in the UK, the USA or anywhere else in the northern hemisphere, here's the gum tree tree explanation.
In Australia, we refer to eucalyptus trees as gum trees. Sometimes we'll speak of the red gum or the river gum or some other type of gum tree.
The simplest explanation is that gum trees contain sap which. more often than not, is sticky. Gummy. Hence the term gum tree. Apparently there are over 900 individually named trees that Australians refer to as gum trees. Most of them are eucalyptus trees.
Have I seen koalas in my gum trees? Not where I am living right now. Koalas are particularly fussy when it comes to the specific eucalyptus varieties they eat. I have, however, had resident koalas in my gum trees in other parts of Australia in the past.
My home is literally 'among the gum trees'.
Which trees have termites?
I am always happy to hear laughing kookaburras nearby, and to spot them visiting trees in my yard. Nature provides Australia with kookaburras as a solution to our snake problems. Kookaburras are not very big but they have extremely strong beaks and I have watched in amazement as a kookaburra attacked and killed a venomous snake, then flew away with it.
Whenever I become aware of a kookaburra nearby, I am careful not to scare it away. If there's a venomous snake in the area, I don't want to break the kookaburra's concentration. It is against the law for people to kill snakes in Australia, even the venomous ones, but kookaburras can kill as many as they like. So, in my garden, kookaburras are a welcome visitor.
After my big gum tree crashed to the ground I went in search of solutions that would not require me to slash and burn every tree, or spray toxic chemicals over my organic land. It was pointed out to me that kookaburras eat termites in trees, using their strong beaks to break through the bark. I was never aware of that before.
Suddenly the presence of kookaburras in my trees has become even more important. I am hoping that if I watch closely, they might give me a hint as to which trees offer them a termite snack as well as a comfortable branch to rest on.
Snake hunter ... and termite hunter.
Natural termite predators
When it comes to my recent problem, I doubt kookaburras would have given me any indication of the presence of termites because the termite population was quite close to the ground and had not reached the branches.
Apparently the echidna is also a natural predator for termites. I know echidnas like to raid mounds of earth housing termites, but I was unaware they also searched for them at the base of gum trees.
Because termites can enter trees from directly below the trunk without needing to make an external path of mud as they generally do when entering a house or other structure, natural predators will probably be the best indication of termites in trees. I will have to start paying more attention.
Ants are also a predator, so I will be watching for any trails of ants climbing the trunks of my gum trees.
Echidna looking for termites?
When termites fly
For at least one day each year our sky fills with winged termites. It is a phenomenon we quite enjoy from a 'nature is great' perspective, but an annoyance when considering the havoc they can potentially wreak. I turn on my outdoor bug catcher just in case it helps attract those closest to the house.
This really is a futile exercise because there are too many winged termites flying in the air for me to have any hope of catching them all, and my home is off the grid and powered by solar batteries.
To leave my bug catcher light on all night is not a clever use of power, but the mating season for termites is during the summer so the batteries are easily recharged by my solar panels the next morning.
Besides, I like to feel as though I am making some kind of effort to reduce their numbers.
Termites ready to fly
Difference between Winged Termites and Flying Ants
Many people refer to winged or flying termites as flying ants, but they're not. I wouldn't waste my precious power on flying ants, but catching as many winged termites as possible is worth the effort.
How can you tell that you are surrounded by flying termites and not just flying ants?
That part's easy.
- Termites have two pairs of wings; both sets are the same size.
- Flying ants have different sizes front and back.
- The other big indicator is the way termites drop their wings. You'll find countless sets of little wings discarded on the ground (or on the floor inside your house if you are really unlucky!)
Flying termites are potential Kings and Queens looking for new territory. Known as alates during this stage, they have emerged from other trees or stumps to reproduce and set up new homes.
Each successful King and Queen combination can generate over 5,000 eggs per day. Each of those eggs hatches into what's known as a nymph. Nymphs develop into termites and take on one of three different roles.
- Soldier termites protect the nest and other termites.
- Worker termites build tunnels, care for new eggs, and get food so it is the worker termites that cause the extensive damage.
- Some nymphs become the future reproductive termites; they become the next generation of alates and form wings ready for flight.
Flying Ant vs Winged Termite
All this damage was ultimately caused by two flying termites.
Living with termites in my trees
“Give me a home among the gum trees,” many Australians sing. I am delighted to have a home in a beautiful natural environment surrounded by eucalyptus trees and other native trees and bushes. The fallen tree has already been chopped up and stacked to dry, ready to provide my family with warmth when winter brings the cold and the wood burning stove becomes the focus of our day.
It is easy to see how termites could have been around since the days of dinosaurs. They are not fussy eaters, there's no shortage of food for them, and their lifestyle offers protection from weather extremes apart from the short time they take flight looking for a new campground.
I don't begrudge the termites their place in the greater scheme of things, but I will be keeping a close eye on their natural predators for clues about future termite feeding sites because I'd appreciate a little warning before they drop the next big tree so close to my home.
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