How Termites Survive Eating Only Wood

In nature, termites are beneficial. They recycle fallen trees and decaying stumps. When people build homes and buildings, termites attack these structures as well.

Termites actually get their nourishment from cellulose. It is the material that makes up wood, shrubs, and grass. Cellulose is also found in plant fibers, like cotton. Cardboard and paper also contain cellulose since they are made from wood.

When termites invade a home, they will eat anything that contains cellulose. They attack wood, cardboard, paper, and fabrics. They destroy boxes, books, photographs, and wallpaper. Termites are often found eating the cardboard backing from sheetrock, leaving the gypsum exposed.

Cellulose can be difficult to digest. Cows, sheep, and many other animals have to chew grass for a long time in order to digest the cellulose.

Termites have one-celled animals called protozoans in their digestive systems. These protozoans produce an enzyme called cellulase. This enzyme enables the protozoans to convert cellulose into sugar.

After the protozoans have converted the cellulose, the termites can derive nourishment from it. Termite workers also share the digested cellulose with the soldiers, reproductives, and immature termites in the colony.

Scientists think that immature termites receive the protozoans from older termites soon after they hatch. It is believed that the immature termites replace the protozoans every time they shed their skin.

Some fungi also produce the cellulase enzyme. Termites often attack wood that is being attacked by fungi. It is common to find termites in wood that is in the process of decaying.

Scientists are studying the connection between termites and fungi. They are uncertain whether the termites use the fungi to partially digest the wood before they eat it.

Experts recommend that in order to help prevent termites, homeowners should eliminate moisture sources around the home. Plumbing leaks and dripping faucets should be repaired. Air conditioner condensation lines and downspouts should drain away from the foundation.