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Last Updated: Sep 3, 2008 - 8:49:52 AM 

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Saturation Point

Mighty Mites
By Karey Burek
Sep 4, 2008 - 8:48:55 AM

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I usually can identify insects if I can get a close look at the little buggers. I definitely can tell the difference between an ant and something that is not an ant—not very specific, but it’s a start. I am giving you my bug qualifications because several years back, while visiting a friend’s house I noticed a swarm by the back door. Not a swarm of hundreds, but a swarm of thousands that were flying, sticking and crawling all over the back of the house, the pool, the deck and the back door. It looked as if these bugs had somehow been expelled from the walls of the house, tasting freedom and only making it as far as the pool before dropping and drowning. Panicked, we called a bug company to come and take a look at our infestation.  I had a feeling it was a bug that required a circus tent to be put over the house while being fumigated.  However, the bug guy, while taking a drag off his cigarette told us ladies that we had our knickers in a twist over nothing but some flying ants. Being the nerd I am, I pulled out a sandwich bag with some of the dead species and proceeded to name the differences between what I had in my hand and a flying ant. Not to be dissuaded from his original findings, the bug guy told us they were ants.

Fast forward to the present and upon arriving home one afternoon my friend discovered her back door had been ripped off the wall. Had someone broke in? Not quite. A few thousand had chewed their way in, creating a conducive environment for her back door to fall off. You see, those flying ants weren’t ants at all, but were in fact termites.  They had indeed originated from the walls and only years later we discovered that my identification and argument had been correct.

Termites, being the little bugs that chew, mostly eat on dead plant material; which happens to be what a lot of house foundations are made of—wood. There are over 4,000 species of termites and of those, about 2600 can cause significant damage to structures, crops and even forests. According to the encyclopedia, termites are considered detrivores, which are creatures that live off decomposing organic matter. This is very helpful in ecosystems, but not very helpful in keeping your house together.  They are found in subtropical and tropical regions, such as Florida, and the fact that they recycle wood is ecologically important in the big scheme of things.

Termites live in colonies and also according to can range in number from a measly several hundred to several million bugs!  Now that is a swarm. They use swarm intelligence and group cooperation to exploit food sources and environments that would not be accomplished if they didn’t work together.
Unfortunately for my friend, that very intelligence cost her a door and a door jam. Thankfully the damage was contained and is being torn out and rebuilt; the termites have since moved on to a tastier structure.

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