Tuesday September 21, 2010
Do termites eat paper? What do termites eat other than wood? Thank you!
Yes, termites definitely will eat paper, and I have a couple fine examples of old books that are riddled inside by the feeding of subterranean termites. The book may have been on a book shelf that the termites found their way into, or perhaps stored in a box in the garage or some other storage area where the termites worked. Paper, of course, is made from wood, and pretty much any kind of cellulose material is fair game for termites. In the Southwest states, such as Arizona, there are subterranean termites in the genus Gnathamitermes that commonly construct mud tubing around the stems of grasses and small plants, particularly after a rainfall, and this becomes the food for their colony. It is not exactly "wood", but it is still cellulose plant material. You may have seen sheetrock with its paper backing fed on by the termites, and often they create the mud tubes over that paper so they can forage in private.
We can find stories that some kinds of termites even eat concrete or soft metals, such as the Formosan Termite, but in reality it is not eating these materials, but only chewing through them as needed to get past that barrier. In fact, with concrete they are most likely to look for cracks that already are available, rather than chewing on that hard concrete. Likewise they may tunnel under carpeting and cause damage to the carpet itself as they work their way through creating a larger pathway. But, anything that used to be a tree or plant is susceptible, and I have seen cribbage boards infested with drywood termites, museum artifacts such as exotic masks infested, cardboard boxes, and certainly anything structural. They even may infest fruit on trees, corks in wine bottles, fungi, and a study back in 1957 supposedly showed that when forced to survive in a laboratory situation, termites even did feed on stucco and cement.
We know that some kinds of woods have a natural "resistance" to feeding by termites and other wood infesting insects, such as cedar or redwood. This resistance is due to unpalatable chemicals in that wood such as resins, silica, and plant oils, but these chemicals are most concentrated in the heartwood, and as younger trees are used for lumber there will be much lower concentrations of those chemicals in the wood, making today's lumber less resistant. Also, over time the chemicals will leach out of the wood, so even nice, old redwood decks become perfectly acceptable to termites.
Mr. Pest Control
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