Why do termites exist?

There is a really interesting interview with Entomologist Greg Henderson in Monday’s New Orleans Times about termites!formosan termite USDA

Sadly, in addition to many other issues facing New Orleans, Formosan termites have invaded. In the interview Greg discusses how to know when you have an infestation, and also explains that termites are actually an important part of the ecosystem, when they are not where we don’t want them:

“I thought it might be interesting to ask Henderson why, in the grand ecological scheme of things, we should appreciate them.

Termites, he said, are efficient at breaking down cellulose, releasing its nutrients back to other organisms. A worthy goal — at least in an unpopulated forest.”

The USDA has some additional stories about Formosan Termites; fortunately, it looks like they will not be able to find a home in Michigan.

Formosan termites were featured in a paper published in American Entomologist last fall (Oct. 2008) that suggested the failure of the city’s floodwalls in Katrina may have been related to infestation with Formosan termites.  And yes, Henderson was the author of that paper!

From a press release covering the paper:

“Author Gregg Henderson, a professor at the Louisiana State University AgCenter, discovered Formosan subterranean termites (Coptotermes formosanus Shiraki) in the floodwall seams in August, 2000 – five years before Katrina struck – and noticed that the seams were made of waste residue from processed sugarcane. Known as bagasse, this waste residue is attractive to Formosan termites.

After the dikes were breached in 2005, Henderson and his colleague Alan Morgan inspected 100 seams for evidence of termites, including three areas where major breaks in the walls had occurred. 70% of the seams in the London Avenue Canal, which experienced two major breaks during Katrina, showed evidence of insect attack, as did 27% of seams inspected in the walls of the 17th Street Canal.”

I really wish that American Entomologist was available online; it’s a fascinating article about how tiny little insects could have played a role in the levee failures.  You can read something similar here, including some photos.

Formosan termites were also the focus of an internet myth; the claim was that trees from areas damaged in Hurricane Katrina were turned into mulch and shipped north.  That myth is untrue for several reasons.  First, there is a quarantine on moving any wood material in and out of areas of known Formosan infestations in the US. Second, the chance that termites would survive mulching, bagging, and transportation, with likely high temperatures and low humidity, is extremely low.  So, mulch away!

Frustratingly, American Entomologist doesn’t seem to use the DOI system. So here’s the citation, in case you want to get it from your library:

G. Henderson (2008). The Termite menace in New Orleans: Did they cause the floodwalls to tumble? American Entomologist, 54 (3), 156-162

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