As climate gets hotter, the termites get hungrier, study finds

As climate gets hotter, the termites get hungrier, study finds

Here’s something that will send a shiver up the spine of anyone who has battled termites—meaning just about every homeowner in Florida.

That finding comes from more than 100 researchers across six continents who measured how fast termites ate blocks of dead wood left outside for at least a year in different regions with varying temperatures and rainfall.

The results were eye-opening, said Amy Zanne, a University of Miami biology professor who led the study. They also underline why warm South Florida is so inviting for such termites. In the study, termites living at sites averaging 86-degrees ate wood seven times faster than in cooler environments averaging 68 degrees. So increasingly hotter days driven by climate change likely means increasingly hungrier termites—in South Florida and elsewhere.

“Nobody has measured that high of a value, so we kept recalculating and checking,” said Zanne, who is the Aresty Chair in Tropical Ecology at UM. “It was surprising how sensitive they are to temperature.”

Most termites aren’t pests

One note: The research study published in Science in 2022 actually focused on termites in the wild not the pests that move in uninvited and swarm in South Florida homes, causing costly damage and demanding expensive eradication treatments. In fact, less than 4 percent of the 3,000 known termite species are pests that give the rest of them a bad rap. The majority of termites contribute to the natural ecosystem, scientists say, nourishing the soil and breaking down dead material so new life can flourish.

“They’re also fascinating organisms because they have the social structure that allows them all to cooperate to make these incredibly high mountains,” Yatzo said.

Still, though the bugs munching your wall studs and window sills weren’t the focus of the study, Zanne and other researchers say it is fair to surmise that temperatures impact pest species in Florida much the same way. They too likely will pick up their pace eating wood in homes and businesses as climate pushes the mercury higher.

Researchers still don’t know why exactly the termites eat so much faster in higher temperatures. It could just be how enzymes and their guts respond to heat, similar to how human hearts pump faster and metabolism speeds up in rising temperature.

But Zanne’s research indicated termites are particularly responsive to heat. Her work compared the rate of termite eating to how fast microbes, such as fungi and bacteria, decompose dead wood in different environments. While the fungi and bacteria also sped up twofold in hotter temperatures, termites still took first place.

Climate change could impact termites in other ways as well. Some species could soon migrate north and south toward once cooler areas. With warming shifts to tropical climates, wood decay also will likely increase as termites access more areas of the world, the study indicates.

“They are accelerating the decomposition of wood in areas where that didn’t have termites so in that sense that are likely expanding and they are increasing their CO2 fingerprint,” said Oscar J. Valverde-Barrantes, an FIU assistant professor who conducted the experiment in Miami.

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