What Do Termites Eat?
Typical Feeding Habits of Termites
Termites eat cellulose material including the following:
In nature, this is helpful because the pests are able to break down decaying trees and dying plants. However, the digestion of cellulose is no easy task. Even large animals such as cows and goats have difficulty stomaching the substance. To get past that, those animals chew grass for long periods of time until the cellulose is more easily digested.
Termites are able to live off cellulose thanks to the organisms found in their stomachs. Bacteria and protozoa form a mutually beneficial relationship with the pests by producing a special enzyme that naturally breaks down cellulose. They digest the cellulose, and termites receive their nutrition in the form of sugar. Additionally, some termite species favor wood that’s already being broken down by fungi to make digestion easier.
Immature termites that don’t yet have the bacteria and protozoa in their stomachs, soldiers, and reproductives are fed by workers. Worker termites pass on the cellulose-turned-sugar substance via a mouth-to-mouth feeding process.
The pests become problematic for homeowners when they feed on wooden structures in buildings. As social insects, termites typically live in large colonies and target different types of wood depending on the species. In most circumstances, infestations of the pest can grow unnoticed until the serious structural damage is already done.
Diet of Drywood Termites
Drywood termites infest decks, fences, furniture and structural wooden members of homes that remain dry. The pests tend to nest aboveground and usually will not come into contact with the soil. Lumberyards and other areas that store and sell wood can unwittingly pass termite infestations onto homeowners. Drywood termite species also infest utility poles. These termite species typically enter the home directly through attic vents or by penetrating wooden shingles.
Diets of Dampwood & Subterranean Termite Species
By contrast, dampwood and subterranean termites infest wood that is already decaying or is in contact with a suitable source of moisture. Homeowners usually find mud tubes on exterior walls that lead from underground termite nests to their food source. Finding infestations of subterranean and dampwood termites can indicate a leak somewhere in the home. Dampwood and subterranean termites build large galleries in infested wood that may cause extensive damage.
How Do They Find Food?
The food-finding habits of subterranean termites seem to be based on where they think wood should be, not on knowing where it is exactly. (In most species, the worker termites do not have eyes and therefore, cannot “see” the location of wood.)
A termite colony’s strategy goes something like this:
- Cellulose (wood and other similar material) is extremely abundant above ground and below ground – if you tunnel randomly and long enough in the soil, you are bound to find some.
- Follow objects (like rocks and tree and shrub roots), cracks or gaps in the soil – this will likely help you locate a food source.
- Follow increasing amounts of soil moisture – this is best for survival (termites need moist conditions) and more likely to lead to organic matter.
- Follow the scent of fungi associated with food – many of these microorganisms attack and break down wood. You can often find more termites where there is fungi.
- Finally, the colony sends out a large number of workers in search of food – the more you send, the better chances you have to get a hit.
- As soon as someone gets a hit, they return to get help, but they leave a chemical trail behind so the new recruits can find their way to the food.
When one of the wandering workers locates food, the sharing and cooperation behavior kicks in. The individual worker or a small group of workers will be at the food for a short time, but then return to the nest or go out and recruit other workers to the food. Sharing food is key to colony survival. Because workers feed and groom each other, the energy put into foraging by individuals pays off for everyone.