Coptotermes acinaciformis: Credit: B.Rankin CSIRO

What is it about wood that woos termites?

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Aussie termites prefer denser wood, wood that is moist and can dampen vibrations, and those with large 'early wood' content, according to Australian research. The study looked at over 1,400 discs of wood to find what determines which wood termites forage on. The researchers say the results have practical implications for studies on termites communication as well as their ecology and co-evolution with trees as their major food source.

Journal/conference: Journal of the Royal Society Interface

DOI: 10.1098/rsif.2018.0505

Organisation/s: University of Technology Sydney (UTS), The University of New South Wales, The University of Western Australia

Funder: The research conducted was supported by the Australian Research Council under the Discovery Project funding scheme (project no. DP110102564).

Media Release

From: University of Technology Sydney (UTS)

Termites: what's on their menu?

As termites swarm summer skies, where are they going and what are they doing?

Termites (Coptotermes (C.) acinaciformis) use vibrations to assess their food sources, to eavesdrop on competitors and predators (including ants,  birds, rodents and reptiles) and give warnings to nest-mates.  They live in in colonies of up to several million individuals with a King and a Queen; are collaborative and well-organised; are herbivores, and either plant-dwelling, wood feeding, or soil-feeding, nesting on, in or adjacent to the organic material (substrate) they consume, within trees or directly in the soil.

They are also significant economic pests, and research is vital to understanding more about how and why they forage and feed.

“We are learning more about these insects and their foraging behaviour which causes so much anxiety to homeowners.  They are actually quite discerning, contrary to the idea that they are voracious and indiscriminate feeders,” said Sebastian Oberst, Centre for Audio, Acoustics and Vibration, TechLab, Faculty of Engineering and IT at the University of Technology Sydney.

For the first time, a study published today by Oberst and co-researchers shows that termite food preferences are based on five key material properties, proving C. acinaciformis prefer to eat denser wood with larger early wood content, preferably humid and highly damped.

“Termites swarm when their populations grow too large for a nest and they are seeking a new food source. Our research identifies that there are multiple factors for selecting a new source, such as the quantity and quality of the food, and the wood as a medium for communication.”

Previously thought to make decisions based on a single factor, this research shows termites are more sophisticated and actually consider multiple factors. They look for suitable substrate for three main purposes: as a food source; as a communication channel; and as building material for nests.

This enhanced understanding has practical implications for food choice experiments and knowledge, for studies concerned with communication in termites, and for creating termite-free conditions for wood-based building materials.

“If we don’t know what they like, we can’t work out what they don’t like,” said Oberst.

Improved knowledge of what attracts/repels will help manufacturers of particle board and wood substitutes develop termite mitigation solutions which are less dependent on, and more sustainable than, chemicals sprays.

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