It is easy to dismiss termites as insect “pests”, but as some people know, these insects serve many important purposes in every type of ecosystem in the world, with the exception of the arctic regions, of course. Unfortunately, the true extent of the ecological benefits that termites provide is not understood by the vast majority of people who have not studied the wood-eating creatures closely. During the earliest days of pest control research, scientists mainly focused on termites as pests to structures and, to a smaller extent, agriculture. However, early entomologists were also well aware of the ecological necessity of termites, but widespread termite destruction to early housing developments in the United States demanded research into how these insects can be eradicated and controlled most effectively.
Considering that no reliable methods of termite control existed during the late 19th and early 20th century, when the American housing industry was booming, early entomologists can be forgiven for focusing on the negative consequences of termite activity as opposed to the positive consequences. But for the past decade or so, termite research has focused more on termites as not only being ecologically beneficial, but the insects are also proving useful in many other fields as well, such as the development of greener forms of energy production and even gold mining operations.
Today, entomologists like Gregg Henderson and J. Scott Turner are questioning the validity of labeling termites as “pests” considering that termites may very well provide ecological services that are ultimately more beneficial to the economy than disastrous to the economy. While it is true that termites inflict billions of dollars in structural damages each year, the insects also provide otherwise dry landscapes with fertile soil that can be used for crop growth, and this benefit is most notable in the dry savannas of Africa, where some farmers rely on mound building termites for converting dry soil to fertile soil. Without this service, far less food would be available to the already impoverished regions of Africa. In fact, when these beneficial termites are eradicated, more destructive termites move in to take their place, indicating that, at least in some regions of the world, termite habitats are better left unharmed.
Do you think that termites will lose their reputation as pests at some point in the future?