My first encounter with termites was financed by a grant to study lizard biology on the sand hills between Clovis and Portales.
With a crew of biology students, my study began by using dowels (wooden pegs) to mark off 10-by-10 feet sections within the study plot of 100-by-100 yards. The dowels (stakes) were three feet in length. We numbered the 121 stakes to determine where lizards were sited on the study area. Each stake was pounded about 12 inches into the sandy soil.
Later, as we systematically walked the study plot to count lizards, we noted that several stakes were lying on the ground, and the buried end of each stake was partially missing.
Blaming vandals, we replaced the stakes into the sand and continued our count. Unfortunately, as we picked up and replaced fallen stakes again and again during the lizard count, our stakes became shorter and shorter.
By the end of the study, some stakes were difficult to see because they measured only five or six inches tall. Finally, we realized that damage to the wooden stakes was caused by subterranean critters.
Later, we decided to collect, study, and determine more about those critters. We received permission for a study site and placed new rolls of toilet paper (a product of wood) one yard apart for 10 yards.
Such a line of toilet paper is called a transect which we put in various places throughout the study area. After a period of time, we identified those creatures that were eating the paper on the underside of each roll as termites — my first face-to-face encounter with those varmints.
One evening the landowner, Mr. Smith, came by for a visit. He was curious about the lines of toilet paper on his property and asked, “What are you fellows up to?” We responded by telling him our objective. Mr. Smith said nothing, smiled, smirked, and continuously shook his head as he walked back to his pickup.
We were convinced that underground termites are almost everywhere, especially where woody materials like plant matter or personal property are available. They form colonies containing many individuals and have a highly organized caste system consisting of reproductives, workers, and soldiers. Reproductives lay eggs to add to the population, develop wings, leave the colony, and form large swarms which establish colonies elsewhere.
Such swarms are sometimes confused with ants, but ants have a skinny waist not present in termites. Workers have many duties including food storage and maintenance of the structure that houses the colony. Additionally, workers consume wood and, by way of their mouth and anus, feed the young and older caste members. Soldiers are primarily defenders of the colony. They use their extended mouthparts to attack invading ants and termites from other colonies.
Many people deal with termites that invaded their property, and others wonder what they can do to prevent termite infestations. The answer is to maintain a termite resistant barrier between termites and personal property. Such a barrier may be concrete or similar material. But, termites can create a tube or tunnel on top of the barrier from their underground colony to their food source. Therefore, even with resistant barriers in place, one must be watchful and exercise vigilance at all times.
Desert Biologist Tony Gennaro of Portales writes a monthly column on creatures of the Southwest. Contact him at: