I came across these termites moving along a water pipe on the Gully Trail at Wat Tham Pha Plong, Doi Chiang Dao, northern Thailand. The pipes provide water for the monks and their guests at the temple, but they also provide a convenient thoroughfare for the termites, helping them to move through the forest without having to traverse the ground!
These are nasutiform termites, which is to say that the soldiers have a pointed snout – a nasus – and are bit smaller than the workers. Presumably they make up for their lack of stature by being armed with a chemical spray gun, which can shoot a noxious aerosol of glue or repellent at any foe, particularly ants.
There are at least 92 species of termite (Isoptera) in Thailand, including 7 genera in the subfamily Nasutitermitinae. (1) Most species in this subfamily are found in jungles and forests; they do not usually attack man-made structures, but rather feed on lichen, lichen-bark, dead leaves, branches, twigs, and other plant matter. (2)
I am not certain, but I think these are a species in the genus Hospitalitermes (Holmgren). There are six Hospitalitermes species in Thailand (1) and they forage openly during the day, as here. Other possibilities from northern Thailand are Nasutitermes, Bulbitermes, Aciculitermes and Havilanditermes. Lovely names!
It is possible that the termites were heading out from their nest to forage in the jungle. I could only find one worker carrying a food-ball in the photos I took (below). Termites are of course decomposers; Nature’s way of cutting up and breaking down wood and vegetation. But they don’t do it alone; they need the help of microbes, symbiotic protozoa which they carry in their guts, to break down cellulose.
What termites lack in size they make up for in numbers. One study of termite abundance in Thailand, found that they were on average 6,450 individual termites per square metre, weighing about 10.7 g. If we scale up this termite biomass, which comprised many species, it gives a total weight of 10.7 million g or 10,700 kg per square kilometre. If I have got my arithmetic right, that is a fantastic ten tonnes per square km! The same as two or three large elephants!
- Sornnuwat, Y., Vongkaluang, C., & Takematsu, Y. (2004). A systematic key to termites of Thailand. Kasetsart J (Nat Sci), 38, 349-368.
- Inoue, T., Takematsu, Y., Hyodo, F., Sugimoto, A., Yamada, A., Klangkaew, C., … & Abe, T. (2001). The abundance and biomass of subterranean termites (Isoptera) in a dry evergreen forest of northeast Thailand. Sociobiology, 37(1), 41-52.