When you think of termites, what's the first thing to come to mind? Probably a headache. After all, nothing makes a homeowner shudder like the mere mention of these tiny, wood-chewing insects.
However, their voracious appetite for wood is only one small part of the picture, and it's important to give credit where credit is due. Some termites may be complete pests, but others are responsible for creating elaborate above-ground mounds that are nothing short of fine art.
These towering, castle-like structures are surprisingly sophisticated and energy-efficient. And as you can see from the photo above, many are downright massive. Continue below to see more images and learn a few quick facts about these enormous termite mounds.
1. Some mounds are as tall as a two-story house
Termites may be tiny on a micro level, but their strength lies in their number. When found in groups of several million, termites can pack an architectural punch. With the right numbers, mound-builders can easily construct mounds that reach towering heights of 15 or 17 feet.
2. Not all termites build mounds
While all termites build nests of some sort, there are only a few species that build towering mounds like this. These “mound builders,” as they’re called, include species in the genuses Macrotermes, Amitermes and Cubitermes.You can't find these termites just anywhere, though; they're native to Africa, Australia and South America.
3. Termites are expert fungus farmers
These tiny insects are more than just skilled architects — some of them also possess a penchant for fungiculture. A specialized fungi belonging to the genus Termitomyces has developed a fascinating symbiotic relationship with some termite species. It works like this: The fungus, which is protein-rich and helps soften wood for chewing, is eaten by the termites. The fungus is able to survive the insects' digestive processes and is excreted within the mound's many combs. From there, the spores are released and the cycle begins anew.
"Ensconced in elaborate termite-built combs and constantly tended, the fungus receives multiple benefits, including food, water, shelter, and protection," writes Lisa Margonelli for National Geographic. "In fact, the deal is so lopsided that it calls into question just who's in charge of the relationship. Collectively, the colony's fungus accounts for nearly 85 percent of the total metabolism inside the mound."
Given the fact that termites spend most of their time underground anyway, perhaps the massive size of these mounds has less to do with their intentions and more to do with the fungi's continued proliferation within the colony.
4. Termites know a thing or two about thermoregulation
Believe it or not, termites are surprisingly sophisticated when it comes to fostering an efficient heating and cooling system within their expansive abode. Their mounds are often equipped with chimneys and other openings that keep the interior cool by allowing hot air to escape.
One of the best examples of this can be seen in the mounds of compass termites. Also known as magnet termites, these insects are named for their unique, wedge-shaped mounds that are oriented from north to south. This remarkably precise positioning is meant to regulate the mounds’ internal temperature throughout the day.
5. Termite mounds promote soil fertility
Due to the sheer amount of digging and deposition of organic materials, the soil within and around the mound is incredibly rich in nutrients. In addition, mounds are also exceptionally moist due to their humidity-retaining architecture. This surplus of nutrients and water in what is typically an arid environment makes termite mounds an ideal place for other organisms to thrive.