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Desert Diary



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You've probably thought of the termite as a pest, but have you ever thought of it as a farmer? What? How could such a destructive insect have such a noble profession? Pause for a moment to think about what termites eat—or destroy. We all know how much trouble they cause to the wood of a house! Can termites really digest the wood they eat? Actually, they need a little help. Some termites cultivate fungus gardens! They deposit their waste, which is high in tough cellulose from the wood, as a fertilizer for the gardens. The fungus breaks down the cellulose, producing a more digestible food for the termites. By recycling, the termites get the most out of their food.

Our Chihuahuan Desert termites, on the other hand, have microscopic organisms living in their stomachs that break down the cellulose. It seems our local termites have found the simpler strategy. Nuisances, yes. pen and ink But at least they're able to get the most out of all that wood they destroy!

Listen to the Audio (mp3 format) as recorded by KTEP, Public Radio for the Southwest.


Contributor: Kodi R. Jeffery, Centennial Museum, University of Texas at El Paso.

Desert Diary is a joint production of the Centennial Museum and KTEP National Public Radio at the University of Texas at El Paso.


A recently deceased termite.




Collins, N. M. 1981. Consumption of wood by artificially isolated colonies of the fungus-growing termite Macrotermes bellicosus. Entomol. Exp. Appl. 29: 313- 320.

Waller, D. A., and J. P. La Fage. 1987. Nutritional ecology of termites. Pp. 487-532, In: F. Slansky, Jr., and J. G. Rodriguez (eds.) The Nutritional Ecology of Insects, Mites, and Spiders. John Wiley and Sons, New York.

Web Resources

Anthony Curtis' Termite Page.