Termite research: small scale vs. large scale exploitations

With the oil crisis, there is renewed effort on biofuels. A number of groups are researching the enzymes that break apart cellulose, such as those in the termite gut, and those in some bacteria that feed on roten wood.

However, there are two ways to focus the termite raising project. One way is the scientific, big-shot, big-money, for medium term results, in the best of cases. The second is a small-scale project that will allow small farmers to have a small termite-farm, good to feed their animals.

This can create an important source of income for small enterprisers or farmers around the globe.

You can build a chemical reactor with enzymes coming from bacteria or termites, for a few hundred thousands (way 1), or have the alive termites themselves do the digestionj (way 2). The second way is Not being done by currently, we do not know why, and is very cheap, because a small farmer will need mabye 400 to get started, purchasing the technology and the reproductors (colony seed insects) from us.

Of course, from way 2 we can provide knowledge and insects to those going Way 1, but that is a second goal.

There are some VC or Angel investors motivated by the Green Way and Feed the Hungry waves that can find this project very appealing. Big companies are probably looking into Way 1, because the go for the big business for a few important clients.

Why nobody does it?

This is the question that started the project. Actually, poor African farmers do it at a small scale, with a high labor associated cost. They do not have the technology that we can build.

Some objections:

– termites are hard to grow (many fans and some companies and research institutions do it regularly).

– termites can escape and be dangerous (not with good containment and safety practices)

– termites can give bad taste to chicken meat (unlikely – unfounded)

– termites are disgusting and the public will reject them (this concept will soon disappear after the fears prove unfounded)

– termites grow slowly (also does grain)

– termites will be an expensive way to feed chicken (previous experiments prove it is cheaper, and much cheaper at industrial scale; termites require very little care or supplies).

– nobody does it because nobody did it (so, I/we would be the first)

My letter to the creator of the Termite Farm concept

I wrote to the Director of the Urban Entomology Program at the University of Toronto, and I reproduce the message because expresses most of my current concerns about this idea.
Dear Dr. Myles:

I have read your website on Termiculture with great attention. I am surprised that nobody tried to commercially grow termites. It is a project that needs negligible investment, but can transform the world.

I have been researching the Web for a month, and I wrote to several experts. None of them said it was impossible. Some of them said growing termites is difficult, and some said it is easy… One said is very dangerous to raise termites here, since there we are a termite-free region (so far). One invited me to collect termites in his area, 500 km North of my city. I am not sure if the termites that build huge nests are appropriate for this. Some people adviced me to use underground termites.

I started a blog to record my data and to invite other people to join in the effort: www.netic.com.ar/termites . I mention your website, and a few others.

My focus is obtaining termites for chicken feed, because it can be done at a very small scale. However, I am also aware of the possibilities of using the termite residues to grow worms (lumbriculture) or to generate methane.

I am located in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and there is a group in a local University that specializes in ants, and were sympathetic to the project. With minimal funding I could probably convince them to carry out a Termite Farming project, analysing the feasibility and profitability issues.

I am a former biomedical scientist, now running a small technology company. Having a company gives me freedom to start the projects that I like. I should also mention that I am good at writing grant applications.

I believe that your idea of growing termites is GREAT: Feasible, Profitable, Ecologic, Easy, Cheap, Fast. However, nobody started it yet. Why? Please give me a clue !!…

Thanks a lot for your attention to my question….

Yours, sincerely,

Sergio R. Samoilovich, PhD.

This letter received a very supportive response. I will describe it in another post.

Termite Housing

The termite housing is one patentable part of this project.

It will take into account:

– the needs of termites in terms of moisture, temperature, microenvironment
– the need of the farmer in terms of collection of grown termites
– the safe containment of the plage

There are two cages being designed, the Experimental Cage, in small size, with glass walls and security double lid, and the Production Cage, larger and in hard plastic.

Both cages will have a carefully regulated gradient of humidity, from dry in the top to wet in the bottom.