Herp enthusiasts are, along with entomologists and exterminators, the only people who actively seek out termites – but we have good reason. These insects (fascinating in their own right, by the way) are a valuable food source for a number of reptiles and amphibians. Termites are particularly important for poison frogs, and form a major component of the natural diet of many species.
Termites are a valuable food for small terrarium animals, and for the young of others, because our options are limited with regard to such creatures. Most consume a wide variety of prey in the wild, but in captivity must make due with pinhead crickets, fruit flies and springtails. I have used termites to feed the young of a number of reptiles and amphibians (other than poison frogs) including five-lined skinks, flying frogs, marbled salamanders and others too numerous to mention, as well as species which remain small as adults (alpine newts, spring peepers, dusky salamanders etc.). The rapid decline of many animals imposes upon us an obligation to become more effective in our captive breeding efforts – I urge you to experiment with termites and other insects.
To make a termite trap, simply take a plastic storage box – the shoebox size works well – and cut several holes of 2-3 inches in diameter into the 4 sides. Stuff the box with damp cardboard and you’re all set (termites relish cardboard – I guess if your normal diet is wood, something softer seems like a treat!).
Search for termite nests beneath rotting logs and under the bark of dead trees. Your trap should be located about a foot away from the nest, buried so that the top of the box is flush with the ground’s surface. Cover the lid with a thin layer of earth and secure with a rock. The termites will establish feeding tunnels to the box. Remove the termite–laden cardboard from time to time, but leave the box in place so as not to disturb the tunnels. Those more mechanically skilled than I may wish to construct PVC tube-within-a-tube systems with screw-off tops, but the plastic box works just fine.
For those of you with wide interests – termites are also eagerly consumed by tropical fish, finches, red-crested cardinals, sunbirds, bulbuls and other cage birds, and invertebrates such as whip scorpions, ground beetles and flower mantids. The termite life cycle is very complex – escaped workers (those individuals that you will catch) cannot establish new colonies in your home – any termites that may infest your home will arrive courtesy of a colonizing queen, so please don’t blame me!
Interesting correspondence between hobbyists using termites as frog food (and a man who has trained his dog to detect termites!) is posted at: http://www.utoronto.ca/forest/termite/Decompiculture/Decompiculture/Termiticulture_emails.htm
As ridiculous as it sounds…have you heard of anyone having success culturing termites? A few posts on the internet forum arachnoboards have some pioneering forays into this…involving decomposed wood, popsicle sticks, brown paper towels which they adore and a method of harvesting them successfully. However, they ceded that the termites eventually chew threw plastic into the mote surrounding the thing and drown themselves and that reproduction doesn’t seem very fast. I’ve heard of a few species that mainly subsist on animal dung(often found under cow patties)…and wonder if those might be safer/more practical to culture(not on cow patties, of course!)
Not a ridiculous question at all…it represents the kind of thinking that has moved our hobby along to the point where we are now breeding food and terrarium animals that were unheard of in the not-too-distant past.
I actually did work at setting up an exhibit of Pacific dampwood termites (Zootermopsis angusticollis)at the Staten Island Zoo, but only met with moderate success. One of the problems in raising any termite species is that they carefully regulate environmental conditions within the nest, to a degree that is nearly impossible to duplicate in captivity. Captive workers are constantly opening and closing ventilation ducts and otherwise manipulating temperature and humidity, and any deviation form the ideal causes the queen to slow down or stop egg production. Queen termites, in common with ant queens that I have tried to establish in captivity, seem very sensitive to disturbances (I guess this might be expected of an animal that spends 20-30 years in a small dark capsule without moving!).
The Cincinnati Zoo, home of this country’s first and still best insectarium, achieved termite-culture success by transplanting a log containing a colony into a poison frog exhibit – check it out if you have the opportunity. They have had mixed success with a few termites, and often have 1 or more on exhibit.
Workers of most species will, however, survive long periods in captivity if fed as you described and allowed to tunnel and remain moist…I’ve kept local termites for quite some time in terrariums stocked with a few layers of damp cardboard, using and replenishing the supply as needed.
I hope you have the chance to experiment… the key is out there somewhere. Please keep me posted.
Thanks, good luck, Frank Indiviglio
I’ve heard one problem with many species of termites such as dampwood termites is that they require the wood to be colonized first by a certain fungus before it is good for them to feed on. The aforementioned culture methods dealt with subterranean termites…but dampwood termite culture would produce perfect gourmet treats for medium sized animals.
One thing of note with subterranean termites(unsure if this works with others) is that unlike most ants, if the queen dies the colony is not doomed due to secondary reproductives that take over the egg laying responsibility. So it seems a colony of subterraneans is definetly possible…due to the fact that they are incredibly destructive I doubt they could ever become mainstream. We have a colony somewhere in our fence and I’ve collected the reproductives when they start flying after a rain. But I didn’t use them for most of my creatures in thought that the wood used to make the fence likely had some nasty chemicals in it.
I think what we would need would be a termite species that in one way or another is not going to be a pest(also to appease the USDA!), and can be cultured in captivity successfully without founding queens. Looks like a detective job for an enterprising entomologist.
Thanks for your thoughts, interesting as always!
As far as I know, most termite species do have the ability to generate a new queen when the original is lost (I believe termite queens are regarded as the longest-lived insects, up to 30 years in some cases). The process is, however, keyed to a variety of environmental and social conditions and so often does not work out well in captivity. A new queen failed to materialize in 1 colony with which I worked, despite the fact that the species in question did possess that ability.
Mating flights, as you mention, are ideal opportunities to collect ants and termites. An ant colony beneath the Bronx Zoo’s reptile house produced thousands each year for a decade or so, right at our back door – could not have been planned any better! One year the area from which they emerged was paved over during construction. Undaunted, the next reproductive flight commenced from the edge of the newly paved area, about 20 feet away from the old. The ants were apparently affected by the warm temperatures above them (they were beneath the building itself), as they emerged sporadically, sometimes in the dead of a NY winter (which certainly rendered them easier to catch)!
It probably is safest to avoid using termites from your fence, especially as they eat the wood itself. A recent study documented high levels of lawn-care chemicals in earthworms, which also eat the substrate within which they live. One biologist on Long Island, NY has linked this to the absence of striped skunks in the area, which was formerly ideal habitat (apparently, local skunks gather at golf courses in the early spring, and consume earthworms nearly exclusively for a week or two). Termites I’ve collected have been from dead trees and logs.
There is, as you suggest, an “ideal” termite (“ideal”, for us and the creatures we favor!) somewhere out there. I just read that someone has figured out how to rear blue-claw crabs (a marine species) in fresh water irrigation ponds on tobacco farms – you just never know.
One day I hope to talk about termites in detail with colleagues at the Cincinnati Zoo Insectarium…until then, please keep your eyes open and pass along any news.
Best regards, Frank Indiviglio
Frank Indiviglio here.
Thanks for your interest in my article. The trap does work, but only if there are termites nearby. I’ve always placed traps within a foot or so of an active colony…it can be further away, but must be within their usual foraging area.
If you do not often run across termites, there are some other alternatives. Aphids are a great poison frog food, in case they occur near you. Just clip off an infested stem and place it in the terrarium. Frogs relish them…I rely upon them heavily for small amphibians during the warmer months here in NY.
You can also gather leaf litter and, after a quick check for centipedes and other potentially harmful creatures, spread it about…the frogs will eagerly hunt through it. Or, if you prefer, place the litter in a funnel positioned over a jar. Set a lamp equipped with a 100 watt bulb over the funnel…the lamp’s heat will drive the invertebrates within into the jar, where you can sort and feed. Springtails, tiny millipedes and grubs, ants and beetles will all be accepted by most poison frogs.
“Meadow plankton” gathered by sweeping a net through tall grass is another option. You’ll need to sort carefully through the animals collected, as large, aggressive invertebrates will likely turn up. One useful trick is to place the accumulated grass into a jar. Tiny holes punched into the lid will allow only “bite-sized” invertebrates to escape into your terrarium.
Please keep me posted on anything you might try.
Thank You!! I have been in search of insects I can collect during the winter months for my box turtle. I live in the forests of northern Ca, were bugs are abundant but reptile shops are not! Do you by chance have a list of other forest edibles?
Hello Cindy, Frank Indiviglio here. Thanks for your interest in our blog and for the kind comment…I’m glad you found my article useful.
The forests of northern California hold some fond memories for me…it was there that I found my first (and only) Pacific giant salamander. Do you ever run across those?
The Pacific dampwood termite, Zootermopsis angusticollis, is native to your area. It is one of the world’s largest termites and is a fine food source for many herps…if you can locate a colony, the trap should work well. I’ve kept these in zoo exhibits and found them quite hardy…you can store extras in a plastic sweater box provisioned with damp cardboard.
Many box turtle foods can be collected fairly easily – earthworms are a favorite (be sure to vary these with other invertebrates, as turtles tend to get “spoiled” and may want worms exclusively), as are any of the white beetle grubs you might find in rotting logs. Also snails and slugs (although I’d hate to think of you using one of your region’s gorgeous banana slugs as turtle food!), crickets, beetles. Avoid fireflies, brightly colored insects (possible toxicity), centipedes, millipedes and spiders. A nice way to keep your box turtle busy is to dump a few handfuls of leaf litter into their terrarium…box turtles will key on this right away and eagerly paw through it…great also for smaller herps, as there will usually be many tiny inverts in the mix.
I use the Zoo Med Bug Napper insect trap to collect moths, beetles and other flying insects for my collection…this is a very effective means of providing important dietary variety.
Canned invertebrates (snails, grasshoppers, crickets, caterpillars) are a convenient food resource that you can order from ThatPetPlace online…all are eagerly accepted by most box turtles, and can be tong-fed to species that take live prey only.
To ensure that your turtle is getting a balanced diet, it’s a good idea to provide a canned or pelleted box turtle food…such can form up to 50% of your pet’s diet, or more at times when insects are in short supply.
You can read more about another collectable food item in another of my articles : Cicadas – An End of Summer Treat for Pet Reptiles, Amphibians and Invertebrates
Please keep me posted as to how your turtle likes various types of foods…such feedback is very helpful and interesting, and please be in touch if you need further information.
Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.
Indian Meal Moths also make a fine addition to your standard stock of small feeder insects.
They are easy to culture on ground dog food or for a more healthy media mixed grains and beans ground very fine will also work.
Hello Maurice, Frank Indiviglio here. Thanks for your interest in our blog and for forwarding your thoughts.
Indian meal moths, along with the similarly-sized flour moths, are indeed a fine food item. I had access to huge populations in the grain storage area of the Bronx Zoo, and fed them to red-backed salamanders, poison, harlequin and Mantella frogs, young desert whip-tailed lizards, African butterfly fish, newly-hatched spiders and a wide variety of other creatures.
Unfortunately, I fear that many pet keepers may not be quite as devoted as are you, and might balk at rearing these potential kitchen pests. Once established, they can be difficult to eradicate. However, our Flour Moth Traps, which utilize environmentally friendly moth pheromones, are very effective at controlling Indian meal moths and similar species – so, those of you who are careful (and have understanding significant others!)… go to it and please report back.
Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.
Interesting that you mention flying ants – I was always under the impression that very few herps eat ants because of their formic acid (with the famous horned lizards being the notable exceptions). Am I mistaken in this? Which species, in your experience, relish ants? (I *have* collected ant pupae as fish food, but have stayed away from the adults….)
Hello Raksha, Frank Indiviglio here.
Nice to hear from you again…also to see that, as with the cicadas, you share my interest in collecting and using all sorts of insects; thanks!
You raise a very interesting point, one that I have considered often. As with yourself, I was always under the impression that, with the notable exception of horned lizards, the spectacular thorny devil and a few others, herps largely avoided preying upon ants due to the formic acid, biting and stinging abilities etc.
I remember, when caring for giant anteaters at the Bronx Zoo, pouring a vile-smelling mix of formic acid and vinegar over the gruel (rice, milk, chop meat, monkey biscuits) which I cooked for them – without the “ant taste” they wouldn’t touch their unusual food (and even I, ambitious insect collector that I am, could not gather enough ants to satisfy the appetites of two 40 pound anteaters and their cub!). I recall also that large numbers of ants confined to zip lock bags after collecting gave off an acidic odor that irritated my eyes.
Yet, in reading field research reports in Herpetologica and other journals, I noticed that ants frequently turned up in stomach content studies of a wide range of herps. It makes sense, I suppose, as ants are often the most numerous insects, in terms of individuals (but not species…that honor goes to the beetles, particularly the weevils) in many habitats – they quite literally drive the functioning of most tropical ecosystems.
I began experimenting and found that most suitably sized native (USA) herps accepted ants – swifts, various toads, green treefrogs, anoles, dusky salamanders and many others. Ants are especially important in the diets of many poison frogs species, as well as for some Mantellas, Atelopus and other small terrestrial frogs, and palm (arboreal) salamanders took them when refusing most other items; flying dragons also seem to favor them. I then tried them on flat rock lizards, whiptails and others, usually with good results.
The trick is in hitting on the right species…I remember, when carrying Texas horned lizards from ant nest to ant nest as a child, that even they refused some while gobbling up others. Certainly there are different tastes, and many can bite or sting – tropical species can be quite nasty. The harvester ants sometimes available via one or two internet dealers are a safe bet for horned lizards and many others, but other than that it really takes trial and error.
You seem to have wide interests, so may be interested to hear that I also have fed ants to fishes, web-building, wolf and jumping spiders and ground beetles, to name a few.
Reproductive (flying) adults, like termites, have a high fat content and seem a particularly good source of nutrition…everything from mantids to quite large mammals, including people in some places, gorge on them during mating flights.
Great to hear that you take the trouble to collect ant pupae for your fishes…a lost art here in the US, but a favorite of mine. Ant pupae sales are brisk in bird markets throughout Southeast Asia, and in through the 70’s commercial turtle food here consisted largely of “ant eggs” (dried pupae). Turtles fared poorly on this as a sole diet, but fresh and dried pupae are a very good supplement for many creatures.
Thanks for your interest in my more “arcane” ideas!
Please keep me posted,
Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.
Hi Frank – thanks for the detailed reply! 🙂 I do have a wide range of interests when it comes to pets (mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, crustaceans, arachnids, insects, molluscs, etc.), and I try to give everyone the most natural food source possible (including for my dogs, who get lots of raw/homecooked food). I raise some live-food colonies (my goal is to ultimately have a largely self-sustaining food chain, and some of my pet species are also feeders), and of course in the winter I have to fall back on some processed and frozen food, but in the warm time of year I do a lot of bug collecting. I’m loving your tips on collecting a variety of live foods, and I’m happy to have found this site! 🙂 (BTW, I’m a big fan of your “Newts and Salamanders” book….) I’ll keep watch for winged ants during their reproductive phase, and will try them out on some of my smaller herps, inverts, and rodents.
Hello Raksha, Frank Indiviglio here.
Thanks for taking the time to write back…I thought I recognized the “symptoms” of one drawn to all sorts of animals. My work has involved me with beasts ranging from ant lions to African lions, and I’d be hard pressed to pick a favorite.
Generalist naturalists and writers were the rule in times past, but are a rare breed these days – Clifford Moore’s classic Wild Animal Pets (1954), still a wonderful resource, does a great job on jumping spiders, red foxes and most everything in-between, and there are scores of others. Well, glad to hear I’m not alone, thanks.
I too wind up keeping feeder animals for interest’s sake – crayfish, snails and marine and freshwater shrimp cultures in particular have taken on lives of their own.
Thanks for the kind words on my book, Newts and Salamanders. I’ll have a second edition out by summer’s end but, per publisher’s guidelines, the text will be much reduced. Photo selection should be greatly enlarged, however…hopefully provided, as were the first edition’s, by the incomparable Dick Bartlett. The Everything Aquarium Book covers a lot of ground, species wise, and focuses on the odd and underappreciated, in case you are looking for something along those lines (I don’t earn royalties…just mentioning it for interest’s sake!).
I’ll add collecting/alternative food articles from time to time. Please keep me posted on your collection and observations, and of course forward any questions you may have.
Enjoy and best regards, Frank Indiviglio
May some body help me about could grow termite as farm animal? Any suggestion will be apritiated.
Hello Khalil, Frank Indiviglio here.
Thanks for your interest in our blog.
A few zoos have successfully bred termites, but it requires transporting an intact colony, with the queen, from the wild into captivity. Unfortunately, this is quite difficult to arrange. Also, termite societies are very complex and have very specific requirements as to humidity, temperature, air flow and food, and these differ greatly from species to species. At this point, collecting them as needed is the most practical approach.
Good luck and please keep me posted.
Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.
I understand they are successfully cultivating termite colonies in Australia. I will try to find the reference and link it here.
Hello, Frank Indiviglio here.
Thanks very much; any info you might be able to provide would be most appreciated.
Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.
Actually some species of termite workers and/or soldiers, especially Reticuletermes Flavipes(Eastern Subteranian Termite), Macrotermes(Mound Building Termite),Nasutitermes Luzonicus (Luzon Point Headed termite), Coptotermes Vastator & Gestroi (Philippine Milk termite), can produce their own colony if a male and female termite is removed from a colony and put in a plastic box with 3 sheets of corrugated cardboard, plywood and on top a sponge. Add at least 30-100 termites in it and they will form a colony if the culture is moist with an air tight lid no airholes and dark.
Thanks for your interesting note; yes, certain termites and other social insects can function as you describe. I was trying to allay fears that people might have re bringing them into their homes (all must be just so for a new colony to form), but I should have mentioned your point. Also useful for those who wish to breed their own,
I have an armadillo lizard and am not so excited about how much they enjoy spiders so I’m resorting more to tolerating termites. I live near woods with lots of different insect including spiders. There everywhere which is why I was wondering if the termites are in the box, if I empty it regularly how much of a chance that there are going to be a spider in there? I love my lizard do much and thought he was a curly tail. I’m trying to feed him what he likes so hes able to be more satisfied.
Thanks for your note; any shelter such as a termite trap could hide spiders, centipedes and other invertebrates capable of biting, so you always need to check and handle with care. However, if the trap is buried and entry is below ground, as described in the article, there would be less of a chance of spiders entering.
I’m currently living in the Dominican Republic, actually working as a field biologist. I came across some tadpoles that were sprouting legs in a stream nearby where I am staying. I decided to provide simple terrarium for them in a plastic cotainer so I can watch them grow and identify them. It turns out they are Hypsiboas heilprini. I thought I might give them a head start before I release them by giving them an easy meal.
There are termite colonies on many trees here. When I break them open, I usually see 90% soldiers and 10% workers. ARE TERMITE SOLDIERS (THE ONES THAT HAVE FORMIC ACID) EDIBLE TO FROGS??? I can’t seem to find this on the internet and I don’t want to poison the little guys.
Thanks for your interest. Much depends on the species (frog and termite)…local ones here in NE USA fine for most herps, but those you’re seeing are formidable, likely only taken by specialists; I’d stay away from soldiers; moths, smooth caterpillars, small beetles would be good choices; what are you working on? Best, frank
Hi there! I just wanted to know if there is a way for me to get a termite queen for my project in uni. I live in the Philippines and it’d be great if you know a method of catching them.
The ueen’s location will depend on the species, but is usually in the deepest, safest part of the colony. You best option might be to contact experts who work with local species…college entomology professors, government orgs dealing with pest species etc. Sounds interesting, pl keep me posted, best, Frank
FYI termites are also a favourite for my Balinese plantain squirrels – so bug eating mammals love them too.
Thanks, Amber…interesting squirrels, very little interest in them here in the USA, unfortunately.
I’ve used termites for chipmunks, flying squirrels, least weasels, shrews and many others…apparently quite large mammals take them as well during swarms in Africa and elsewhere. Enjoy, Frank
Forgot to say – we collect them with nets during swarming in the wet season, but I’m very keen to try trapping as netting is only possible for a brief season.
Please let me know how all goes…where are you located?…some specialize in feeding on grass, so bait may need to be modified, best, Frank
We live and work in Bali. Our squirrels are rescues. We can buy crickets but they are too big for the little squirrels and they just aren’t as keen on them. We have lots of termites in our yard feeding on the rice husk and coconut fibre that come with the plants we get from our local nursery. I think trapping will be straightforward, but will let you know how we go.
Thanks, Amber…I look forward to updates,
Good luck in your work, Frank