Are Termites Decomposers or Consumers? What’s the Difference?

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With our constant struggle with termites, it makes sense to “know” more about them and to get more info as how we’re going to protect our homes.

One little info though is knowing about the termite’s eating habits. We have to know why they keep on invading our properties.

Are termites decomposers to the wood we use to build things? Or are they just consumers that are looking for food?

Are Termites Decomposers or Consumers?

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Termites are consumers that eat dead cellulose-based plants and animals. CC Image courtesy of Craig Kirkwood on Flickr

termites eating the wood of the house

Termites are consumers

Are termites decomposers? NO. It’s as simple as that.

If you remember your biology class, there are three groups of organisms in the circle of life, the producers, consumers and decomposers. Every group eats something unique to them. Plants make their own food while consumers are organisms that eat other organisms to survive.

A detritivore is a type of consumer that only eats dead and decomposing plants and animals. And yes, you guessed it. Termites are detritivores.

All termites eat dead cellulose-based plants and materials. Cellulose is an organic fiber that’s natural to plants and trees. And even though cellulose is tough to digest for some animals like cows and horses, termites have microorganisms (protozoa) in their stomachs that help them. The bacteria break down all that wood and plant fiber they’ve been grazing and turn them into sugar for energy.

Termites don’t eat live trees. If you’ve seen them hanging around a live tree, it means the tree is already dying from a disease, an injury or other causes.

Termites can also eat other dead vegetation if nothing else is available. But unlucky for us, dead wood is their main source of food. It’s just plain unlucky we build our houses and funiture with what they eat.

Are termites decomposers in the wild?

Just recently, we asked this question to some of our friends. And we heard very curious answers. One of which was this: Termites are consumers when they invade houses, but they’re decomposers in forests.

While that’s an intriguing thought, it doesn’t work like that.

It’s easy to get mixed up in all of this. The confusion revolves around the thought that detritivores eat dead things while decomposers like fungi and bacteria also eat dead things. They sound the same. But they’re really just different organisms with the same kind of appetite.

The difference is in the “HOW” – as in, how termites, fungi and bacteria eat. The main difference between the two is that termites are able to physically take in and ingest lumps of dead organisms. They eat with their mouths.

Meanwhile, bacteria and fungi go through the process of decomposing their food source. The dead matter is absorbed and metabolized in a molecular level. That’s why rotting plants and animals change their appearance gradually over time.

In case you’re wondering, this process is called saprotrophic nutrition.

So are termites decomposers? No.

They’re undoubtedly consumers.

But by the way they’ve been infesting houses and consuming our things, we couldn’t have guessed otherwise. Now you know why methods like the cardboard trap method and baits work on them. They live to eat what’s on their menu.

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