The Important Role of Termites
I have always admired the ability of termites to chew 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 essential 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.
Tiny Termites Have the Power to Fell a Huge Tree
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.
Termite Invasion in Australia
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 treehouse standing just within its reach.
Hidden Damage in a Healthy-Looking Tree
The open wound revealed a shredded mess contained within no more than half an inch of the 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. The 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.
What Exactly Is a Gum Tree?
When living overseas, I often had people asking me about the "gum tree tree." They'll ask, "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.
Eucalyptus Tree = Gum Tree
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.
Kookaburras Eat Termites
I am always happy to hear laughing kookaburras nearby and 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.
A Natural Termite Detector
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.
Echidnas and Ants Also Eat Termites
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.
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.
Winged Termites vs. 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: Check the wings.
- 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!)
Roles of Termites in the Nest
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 most extensive damage.
- Some nymphs become the future reproductive termites; they become the next generation of alates and form wings ready for flight.
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.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2013 LongTimeMother
Mark dos Anjos DVM from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on November 12, 2016:
I have no idea as to which species. All of our eucalyptus trees here in Brazil are the same species, so I will take some pics tomorrow and mail them. Not sure about the flowering.
Thanks for the help!
LongTimeMother (author) from Australia on November 12, 2016:
Hi Mark. Yes, you certainly can use some varieties of eucalyptus trees for fence posts. We do. And the early settlers built homes and fences etc from them. The big question though is 'which type' of eucalyptus trees you have. Some are better than others. Do you know what type they are? If not, you could email me a photo and I'll try and identify them for you. Do you have pics showing their bark, and what they look like when in flower?
Mark dos Anjos DVM from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on November 10, 2016:
Hi LTM, I was just curious if you are able to use your eucalyptus trees for fence posts or other jobs around your land, depite the termite problem? I have about 80 mature eucalyptus trees on my plantation and was going to cut them down to build fences but am worried about the termites, despite our healthy anteater population. (Since the trees are from your area, not sure if we have any other natural predators on live trees. Termites, of course, are native here too!)
Benjamin Chege on September 23, 2013:
Hi LongTimeMother, I didn't know frogs eat mosquitoes as well. Thank you for letting me know that. From now henceforth, I guess I will have to give them more attention and respect.
LongTimeMother (author) from Australia on September 23, 2013:
Hi Benjamin Chege. Thanks for your comment. I don't see many dragonflies around my place, but we have lots of little frogs to help combat the mosquitoes. :)
Benjamin Chege on September 22, 2013:
Great hub LongTimeMother. Voted awesome and beautiful. I like the fact that you resorted into biological means of preventing the damage caused to your gum trees by termites. Similar to your story of using kookaburras to devour poisonous snakes and termite hunters, in my compound dragon flies are my favorite, as they help me get rid of mosquitoes. It is the high time we appreciated the role of biological pest control.