It’s hard to think that termites could possibly do any good for people or for the environment. But some places in the world rely on termites to improve the soil. These are places without earthworms to provide make tunnels. These places often lack large grazing animals which provide fertilizer. Termites do the job that would otherwise be done by earthworms and grazing animals. Without the termites, the soil will soon become infertile.
Gardeners and farmers in North America and Europe are better off using earthworms or red wiggler worms than termites. The availability of wood, plants and grass is far more available and can accidentally lead to any termites in the garden infesting homes, fences and outbuildings.
Who Could Benefit
Where do termites improve soil? Mainly in the dry savannahs of Northern Australia and the Sahara desert in Africa. Termites are also being used in the driest parts of Australia in order to make land fertile enough for crops. Native termite species have also been introduced to arid Australian farms to increase crop yields. A 2011 study done by the University of Sydney showed that termite-tilled fields produced about 36% more than fields without termites.
More studies need to be done to see if termite or ant colonies could help make dry land more fertile and thus produce more food. Just releasing a colony of Australian termites to the ecosystems of other countries is a huge decision which can go spectacularly wrong, such as in the case of the cane toads in Australia.
About Termite Frass
Termites help to transform dying or decaying plants into nutritious fertilizer through their droppings, called frass. Since termites live in massive colonies, they make a considerable amount of frass. Their constant tunneling also helps to till the soil and move nutrients from one part of the ground to the other, according to the University of California.
Termite frass is full of decomposing plants, so it is rich in nitrogen, a nutrient found in many commercial fertilizers. Termite digestive bacteria help produce the nitrogen-rich termite poop. Termites feed their larvae some frass, but most gets shoved out of the colony. The frass eaten by larvae is their only way of getting the gut bacteria they need in order to digest their intensely fibrous foodstuff.
Australia is home to 258 termite species (with another 90 species yet to be classified) but has only a few species which are pests for people. 160 species live in Northern Australia alone. This is much different than in the United States, where termites are generally destructive because they prefer to eat wood and not settle for grass or other vegetation. The species that help till and fertilize Australian soil include:
- · the cathedral termite, Nasutitermes triodae
- · the magnetic termite, Amitermes meridionalis
- · the tiny termite without a common name, Occultitermes occultus.
- · “Ants and termites increase crop yield in dry climates.” Theodore A. Evans, et al. Nature Communications. March 29, 2011.
- · University of California Integrated Pest Management Program. “Termites.” V. R. Lewis. May, 2001.