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What is a Termite Mound?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 01 September 2016
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A termite mound is a structure built by subterranean termites. Some of the most famous examples of termite mounds can be found in Africa, where they may tower 30 feet (nine meters) high over the landscape, contributing to the ecology of the area in addition to providing a home for termites. Less ambitious termite construction projects can be found all over the world, from rainforests to back yards. Termite mounds are fascinating from an engineering perspective, as they involve immense cooperation and ingenuity to build.

Not all termites are mound building. Those that do construct mounds make them in all shapes and sizes, ranging from small, soft mounds near the entrance to the nest to huge, ornate structures sometimes referred to as cathedral mounds. The mound is built with the use of soil and saliva from the termites, and the insects construct a complex network of corridors, rooms, and vents within the mound which facilitates social behavior.

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The termite nest typically stretches underground beneath the mound. One of the key roles of a termite mound is in temperature control, with termites opening and closing vents to achieve a stable temperature. Mounds are also used to control humidity, with conditions which can be so stable that the humidity rarely varies by more than one percent. Furthermore, termitaria, as termite mounds are sometimes known, are also used as greenhouses by the resident termites. Termites breed synergistic fungi, using the fungi to break down biological material into a form which can be digested by the termites.

In nature, a termite mound can create habitat for other animals. Animals may settle in abandoned mounds, and mounds can also provide shelter for the seeds of trees and plants, allowing them to germinate and grow after the termites have left. Termite mounds are also of interest to humans, because they can be used by prospectors to look for indicator minerals. By analyzing the soils in a termite mound, a prospector can learn more about the underlying soil, and whether or not it contains substances which may be useful.

Depending on the species, it is sometimes possible to look at a termite mound and determine which species has constructed it. In other cases, it is necessary to look for members of the colony. Determining which species lives in a mound is important; people may be inclined to destroy termite mounds due to fears about destructive insects, but not all termites are destructive, and they can actually be beneficial for the environment in some cases.

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matthewc23
Post 6

My aunt and uncle went on a trip to South America several years back. When they were there, they went on a trip through one of the local rainforests and got to see some of the termite mounds mentioned in the article.

I think they were the cathedral builders. They took pictures, and the mounds were about 10 feet tall and crawling with the termites.

I was thinking just now, are there any species of termites that will attack a person like ants will do? I figure termites have stronger and sharper mouth parts, so some of them biting you could be really painful I would think.

cardsfan27
Post 5

@Izzy78 - Were in the US do the tree killing termites live? Do you know for sure? I'd be interested in reading about them. We had a tree in our yard that mysteriously died a couple years ago. Right about at the same time, we started finding termites in our home.

In our case, we actually saw some of the termites walking over the boards on our porch which is what tipped us off. I never saw any other signs of the termites. I assume most of them were living under the house.

We had to call an exterminator to get rid of them. Luckily, we caught them soon enough that there was no major damage.

Izzy78
Post 4

@jmc88 - All termites need to feed on cellulose, the material found in cell walls. There are different types of termites, though.

Some of them feed on wood, but others can eat grass or even old plant material in the soil like decomposing leaves and roots. I know in the United States there is even some species of termites that feed on tree roots and can kill a tree if they get too numerous. I think most of the ones we have, though, just feed on dry wood.

I have heard of people buying treated wood that has been injected with something that is supposed to discourage termites from eating it. I have never seen it anywhere to buy

it though.

If you do get a termite infestation in your house, what should you look for? Do the termites we have build mounds that you can notice from outside your house? What do the mounds look like? What can you do to get rid of them before they turn into a problem?

jmc88
Post 3

Do termites always have to feed on wood, or is that just how we normally think of them, because they get into our homes? I know the article mentioned growing different types of fungi in the tunnels.

If they feed on wood, where do they find it in places like Africa? Do they just start digging into trees? With that many termites, it seems like they could do a lot of damage to trees in the area. How do they stop from destroying their food source?

Mammmood
Post 2

@David09 - I’m glad that termites serve some useful purpose for science. I just had to get rid of them. I used these termite bait sticks that were supposed to tell me if I had termites, but the sticks were unreliable. They would pop during simple rains, with no termites inside the bait.

Finally I had professional termite inspections which confirmed that termites had indeed invaded our wooden house. The inspector pointed me to several termite mounds along the outside of the house.

We had some chemical extermination treatment done and it seems to have solved the problem, at least for now. I can’t afford these so-called professional baiting systems which are supposed to kill the queen termite, so I stay with the chemical treatments.

David09
Post 1

I agree that termite mounds are architectural marvels in their own right. I read an article once about how engineers were looking to nature for inspiration in solving today’s energy problems.

The termite mound architecture was one of the examples that they took away from nature. These engineers built a model high rise in Africa that had no air conditioning but used the cooling system modeled after a termite mound to supply its ventilation.

As the article points out, termites open and close vents to control the temperature in the termite mound. The building in Africa does the same thing; it opens and closes ducts and routes convection currents up and down through the building on a periodic basis to control the temperature.

I’m not up too much on the technical details, except that I recall it was a tremendous energy saver and an engineering marvel in its own right.

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