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Sometimes insects don't look and act the way you'd expect.

subteranean-termite-tube

Take termites. Here in the Southwest, subterranean termites are common, but you don't see them very often. They are tiny insects that spend most of their time hidden inside tunnels in wood or within the mud tubes they build.

The workers are soft and white, like a cooked piece of rice. The soldiers are heftier, with large mandibles and longer yellowish-brown heads.

Still, you don't see them unless you break into their homes.

We also have desert encrusting termites, which make patches of mud over the surface of grass or the bark of trees.

They are also white and soft bodied, and stay out of sight.

In fact, you might think that all termites are like this if you only saw southwestern ones.

So, let's move to Malaysia for a minute. What are the insects in this video?


(Thanks to Steve Naranjo for the video.)

The insects are actively running on a log. They are colorful. In fact, at first they look like ants, but these are processional termites. Rather than munching inside or on wood, they graze on lichens that grow on trees. If you look closely, you can see some of the workers carrying clumps of lichen in their mandibles.

Talk about defying expectations. Aren't processional termites mind-blowing?

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Did you figure out the mystery insect from last week?

The patches of mud you see on the trunk of the saguaro are made by desert encrusting termites (Gnathamitermes sp., probably Gnathamitermes perplexus).

These desert termites build layers of mud on the bases of saguaros or palm trunks. They also plaster mud over dry grass or twigs on the ground, particularly after a rain.  Over time they eat the grasses or twigs, leaving a hollow tube of dried mud.

On trees, they gently scrape the surface clean of dead material.

Desert encrusting termites are different from other termites because they do not enter or eat sound, strong wood. They could even be considered beneficial. Have you ever heard that termites have protozoa in their guts to help them digest the cellulose in wood? Desert encrusting termites have bacteria instead. Those bacteria are capable of fixing nitrogen, which means they actually fertilize the soil. Because the termites work on dry grass and twigs on the ground, they reduce fuel for wildfires. Finally, by tunneling in and moving soil, they aerate it, making it better for plants.

You could say that desert encrusting termites are part of nature's clean up crew.