Termites: the homeowner's nightmare. They eat silently through the walls, and by the time you notice them, it's already too late. We all know termites eat wood, but what do they get out of the dry, seemingly tasteless stuff? Image: TermiteColony.jpg
The tiny creatures eat cellulose, a main component of wood. Cellulose is a very strong material -- plants rely on it for their sturdy structure -- and so anything that contains cellulose, such as books, carpets, furniture, and plants, are targets for termites. Not many animals have enzymes to break cellulose down.
So termites rely on a microscopic animal that lives in their guts to help them digest this tough material. All day and all night, termites slowly grind up wood in their pincers, to break it down. Then the protozoa do the digesting, converting the cellulose to sugar and feeding it into the termite's intestines. To get these protozoa in the first place, termites feed on their siblings' feces.
When they devour dead trees in forests, termites help recycle nutrients and make space for new plant life.
Of the three types of termites in the U.S., one kind does not need moisture in its diet, and lives only on the trace amounts of water found in wood.