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.

Field trip to Chaco National Park

I am just returning from the first field trip. Unfortunately, I did not bring any termites.

I drove 1200 km to the Chaco National Park, stayed there for less than a day, and drove back. A lot of driving, really.

I seem to have underestimated the costs and difficulties, after seeing the desolate region where the termites were first captured. Many kilometers of desert, with little chances of getting eventual mechanical help. The temperature was about 35º C, there were mosquitoes with reported dengue cases in the area, and the bike in the top of the car slowed down the car to a maximum 90 km/hour safe driving.

I decided to cut the trip short for about 300 km, and change destination. Instead of the Copo National Park I went to the Chaco National Park.

Chaco Nat.Park

Chaco Nat.Park

The park was infested with ants, natural enemies of termites. I found no termites in rotten wood, but ants instead.

The only termites I found were of the kind that builds nests (see photo).

Chaco Nat.Park

When I saw the termites inside the nest I took a minute to take the photo. Then, I tried to get more termites, but nothing. They had all hidden into the deep. I knew about this conduct, but I did not imagine they would be so fast.

I am still trying to contact the people who originally described subterraneal termites in the North of Argentina, for a future new field trip.

Planning a field trip to the Chaco, looking for termites

I read an article by an entomologist that collected 18 species of termites from 16 genera in a single land reserve, in the Northeast of the Santiago del Estero province.

The author (Carolina Cuezzo) gives several details on how to look for termites. Thus, I decided that this is my best bet for a field trip. It is 1400 km from my city, and it is a completely desertic tropical area.

I plan to spend 3 days driving and 2-3 days collecting termites. The cost of the trip is estimated in $600. I will take photos and bring all the possible termites, in separate containers, to my home lab or to a University lab. Some of them will be available for experts abroad willing to pay shipping costs.

I plan to use my own car, rather old but still reliable. I will take my camping gear and extra water and fuel, because the area is quite remote and weather is torrid in mid summer. The towns nearby are properly named:

Resistencia (Resistance) – Pampa del Infierno (Hell’s Pampa) – La Escondida (The Hidden One) – Monte Quemado (Burnt Mount) – Río Muerto (Dead River).

The Copo National Park is situated in a remote area of the dry Chaco:

Santiago del Estero - Copo Park

Santiago del Estero - Copo Park

More details to follow.

Abstract of the paper, published at

Scientific paper

: The termite fauna of an environment of the argentinean semiarid Chaco was sampled at the end of the dry season. Sixteen genera and 18 species representing three families (Kalotermitidae, Rhinotermitidae and Termitidae) are cited for Santiago del Estero. Eleven genera are new records for the mentioned province. Biological data are given for some species.

Here I list the species reported by that author. In the original publication are shown as an image, here I transcribe them as text:

Family: Kalotermitidae
Neotermes hirtellus (Silvestri)

Family: Rhinotermitidae

Heterotermitinae

Heterotermes longiceps (Snyder)

Family Termitidae

Apicotermitinae

Anoplotermes sp.
Aparatermes abbreviatus (Silvestri)
Ruptitermes reconditus (Silvestri)

Nasutitermitinae

Constrictotermes sp.
Diversitermes diversimiles (Silvestri)
Nasutitermes nordenskioeldi
Paracornitermes sp.
Procornitermes striatus
Procornitermes triacifer (Silvestri)
Rhynchotermes nasutissimus (Silvestri)
Syntermes bolivianus Holmgren
Syntermes nanus Constantino

Termitinae

Amitermes amifer Silvestri
Dihoplotermes inusitatus Araujo
Onkotermes brevicorniger (Silvestri)
Termes sp.

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.