How To Look At A House
McGarry and Madsen's home inspection blog for buyers of
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What do termites eat?
Saturday, September 29, 2018
Most people know that termites can invade inside the walls of a home and munch away at the wood, causing major structural damage. But what they are really after is the cellulose component of the wood. Cellulose is a major part of the cell wall of plants and the most abundant organic compound in the world.
Termites also eat paper—because it is a wood-based product containing cellulose—along with the wood parts of any furniture that they can get into. So it’s important to check any used furniture you buy at an auction or yard sale for evidence of termite infestation before bringing it into your home.
An array of symbiotic microorganisms living in a termite’s gut help it to process the cellulose. Fungi, bacteria, and protozoa begin the process, after which the termite completes the digestion.
Termites will chew through any material that is softer than their hardened mandibles, such as plastics and drywall, to get at cellulose behind it. This may be why there are popular misconceptions that termites eat substances that are not cellulose-based.
Although everyone wants to keep termites out of their houses, they are an important part of the earth’s ecosystem, recycling plant material back into the soil. If you come across a fallen tree trunk in the woods that appears to be rotting away and pull away a top chunk of the deteriorated wood, you will likely see a cluster of annoyed tiny, white termites that will immediately begin scurrying deeper into the wood. They work in unison with fungi and other insects to return the wood to the soil.
On a recent vacation in Mexico we came across a large above-ground termite nest, called a “carton,” wrapped around a rotting tree trunk at a tropical forest in a seaside national park in Cancun. The photos below show the carton and also a close-up of a cluster of termites at an opening.
Also, see our blog posts Do termites eat concrete? and Do carpenter ants cause structural damage to houses in Florida?
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To learn more about termites, see these other blog posts:
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