Before we tackle the indispensable contributions of termites to increasing soil fertility, let us first have a brief background about soil fertility. This is the condition of the ground in which all the needed nutrients of the plants in order for them to grow healthily are sufficient. The best strategy for the farmers to make full use of it is to take advantage of all the organic nutrients while conserving the soil and water available. However, due to drastic climate changes and improper human interventions, it gradually declines and eventually causes the farmers a great deal of financial frustration. To understand it further, here are the enumerations of the two most important aspects.
1) The ideal physical and chemical properties of fertile soil
a) Soil that have enough pores to hold good amount water for the roots of the plant to take. It also enables the soil to drain well.
b) A well-aerated soil enables the plant to have sufficient supply of air through the roots. Therefore, the soil compressed by a heavy equipment or livestock is not ideal for growing healthy crops.
c) The pH level of the soil should also be regulated together with proper aeration.
d) The soil should have good cation exchange capacity level which implies that the soil has more clay content rather than sand.
e) Soil-dwelling macro and micro-organisms should be healthily present in the soil to have an efficient breaking down of organic matters to be converted to soil nutrients for the consumption of plants. They greatly support healthy plant growth and health.
f) The soil should be abundant with elements needed for plant nutrition such as Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium and small amounts of the trace elements which aid in promoting healthy growth such as cobalt, iron, copper, boron and several others.
2) Factors that contribute to the degradation of soil fertility
a) Drastic climate changes like flooding and drought make the soil lose the nutrients needed by the plant, especially if the farmers are unable to prepare the crops from these weather probabilities. The nutrients are found in the top soil which is the surface easily affected by weather extremes. Flood could wash them away and would obviously cause too much water content in the lower surfaces of the soil. With this, even the root extensions would be damaged, aside from the probability that the plant could then be easily uprooted. Drought, on the other hand, could dry it up and since the clay content of the soil could easily be hardened, not only the water substance but also the aeration is compromised.
b) Burning the crops and leaving the soil bare and unprotected from the sun and wind for a long time make it lose the pH balance of the soil and also changes the physical properties such as water content and aeration. With strong winds, the top soil could be blown away. For this reason, it is ideal for farmers to plant trees and shrubby plants around the area so that natural vegetation could maintain the pH balance and other essential properties of the soil.
c) Misuse of fertilizers makes both of the soil's physical and chemical properties change. Commercially formulated fertilizers need careful application by the farmers. If the wrong amount of these chemicals is applied, they could cause too much alkalinity or acidity which could either way is unfavorable. Nevertheless, too much chemicals may not only be disadvantageous to the soil but also harmful to the crops and in the end of the yield, could be harmful to humans as well.
d) Improper crop rotations also contribute to the degradation of soil fertility. The soil also needs ample time to gain its natural components before it gets to be utilized again. If farmers use them in yielding crops immediately after harvesting, the soil is being drawn to its limit in supporting the growth of the plants. All nutrients are drained from it without having it restore the lost elements in the previous yield. After the second harvest, the soil's fertility has already been so depleted that it would require the farmers to be conscientiously applying methods of refurbishing the natural elements and properties.
II. How Termites Increase Soil Fertility
If the physical and natural properties of the soil have been changed in a way that soil depletion is caused, the most effective strategy is to restore its natural composition and increase its fertility is to use organic means. There are commercial products available in the market but nothing could surpass the benefits of the organic methods. They do not carry health hazards as well and with very limited restrictions which would make farmers worry-free as the take on the cultivation of the soil.
Nevertheless, the most effective method is to cultivate macro-organisms such as termites and micro-organisms such as fungi and bacteria in the ground. Termites are very efficient in organic decomposition and this process brings back to the soil all the nutrients that the plants need to grow well. During the decomposition process, these insects enable different kinds of bacteria to dwell in the soil. These bacteria not only contribute to the breaking down of the materials but also mineralize nitrogen in the soil. Since this element is mineralized to simpler forms, the plants could absorb them easily and convert them to elements essential to their own growth.
On the other hand, fungi are directly maintained by termites. In building their mounds, termites maintain a garden of fungi to aid their digestion of cellulose and in turn, fungi also benefit from them. Termites aid in their reproduction. Thus, they co-exist and take advantages of each other. The benefits that the plants get, then, could be considered as the "collateral damage" of the mutualism in the positive way.
Moreover, Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium which are essential soil nutrients build up in the mounds of termites. The carbon, on the other hand, is released in the form of carbon dioxide and methane from the mounds or even from the shelter tubes of these insects. In addition to that, termites also help creating air vents in the soil as they make passages and tunnels for their colony. These vents enable sufficient aeration for the benefits of the plants. Thus, the presence of termites in the ground and even their activities are highly beneficial to the crops in terms of soil fertility.
Amazingly researched by Michael Rozatoru :)