In some areas, such as the Texas High Plains, desert termite populations averaged 8.6 million per acre, peaking at 39 million per acre according to a three-year study. During the study, desert termites consumed 366 pounds per acre of plant litter and forage daily throughout the growing season. While too much desert termite activity can be detrimental to pastures and fields, most of the time ranchers and farmers benefit from desert termite activity.
Feeding on live, dead or decomposed plant materials, desert termites prefer grasses, herbs and livestock manure. To protect them from the desert sun, winter temperatures and dehydration, these fragile and soft-bodied termites build tubes or sheets of mud near a food source. Consisting of soil, saliva and feces these “carton” tubes and sheets protect desert termites from the elements.
Desert termite activity helps to regulate the flow of carbon and nitrogen in ecosystems, cleaning up, breaking down and processing about half of the dead roots and plant litter in annual and perennial grasslands. In this process, atmospheric nitrogen is converted to ammonia by bacteria in the termite’s hindgut.
Dictated by soil type rather than vegetation type, desert termites flourish in clay and silt soils, as sand isn’t ideal for tube construction. In the colder months, desert termites tunnel deeper into the soil to keep warm, making soil more porous, improving rainfall infiltration and improving plant growth in arid areas.