Rearing Termites as Feeder Insects

By Don Wells


Wells, D. (2004). Rearing Termites as Feeder Insects. Chameleons! Online E-Zine, January 2004. (

Rearing Termites as Feeder Insects

Although it may seem a bit odd that anyone would write about the rearing of a commonly regarded, even feared, and substantially damaging pest species such as termites, they are in fact a superlative food for reptiles and amphibians.

The Dart Frog keepers have long known about the benefits of feeding termites to their animals. Nothing will bring a Dart Frog into breeding condition faster than when fed termites. I am still unsure if it is the nutrients in the insects, fat content, or psychological that makes this happen. I have had similar results when using termites as part of the diet of lizards and even insect-eating birds. Termites are magic things!

Unlike crickets and mealworms, termites are farmed rather than raised under more familiar, controlled situations. Virtually the world over has termite populations unless you live in the Arctic Circle or South Pole and they are easily farmed, albeit sometimes seasonally, in just about any locality where they live naturally.

Farming white gold!

Termites require just a few things to make them happy. Number one requirement is cellulose in their diet. This can be in the form of rotting plant debris, wood, paper products (especially when non dyed), and cloth such as rayon and other natural fibers. They generally forage for these items in damp areas coming out from their underground tunnels to the surface when the correct weather conditions are in place. Usually after a period of rain one can generally locate them under flat laying refuse such as old wood, cardboard boxes, etc. Another key requirement is sufficient ambient humidity without which their bodies will soon desiccate. Lastly, temperatures from 45 degrees to the low 80's F. Death is certain to any termite that tries to live where its soft body cannot protect it from dehydration and high heat.

In cold winter areas termite rearing is only possible during the spring, summer, and fall seasons when temperatures are high enough to allow the termites to move and feed. In the Western part of the United States termites are active during winter months even during cold periods as long as frost is not present. In much colder areas they go deeper into the ground to protect themselves from freezing. Wintertime damp, rainy conditions are perfect for termites in mild weather areas of the Western U.S. In colder areas termites wait till the temperatures are stable enough to come to the surface and resume looking for food. During hot dry weather it is difficult to farm them unless you know a few key things to keep them on the surface. I will briefly outline my experience while rearing termites under various conditions in the desert areas of Eastern California (Bishop), Southern California ( Riverside area), and Arizona ( Scottsdale) as well as here in the tropics ( Bali, Indonesia). Hopefully this will give you enough information to give termite farming a try? Once you understand what it takes to raise these little morsels you will wonder why you never did it before!

How to Start

You will need the following items to farm termites successfully:

1. Several 4-5 inch diameter plastic or PVC pipe sections. Preferably the perforated type utilized for leach lines in septic systems. If you cannot get these then buy solid pipe and drill ½ inch holes around the pipe as illustrated.

2. Plastic cap to place on one end of the pipe for protection and to keep the interior damp and protected from drying and light. These are found in the same building supply places as the pipe and are used to normally close the ends of the pipe.

3. Hacksaw or other saw to cut the pipe into 15-18 inch sections.

4. Unpainted or non-dyed cardboard packing paper as used in packing fragile things such as glass. This is usually corrugated and purchased anywhere packing supplies are available. Try to buy the size closest to the length of the pipe section you have. I have, in the past, utilized other things in a pinch to keep my termite farms going. I have used everything from old cardboard cartons to even an old Rayon shirt!

5. Small garden trowel or other digging device that will allow micro-digging so as not to disturb the soil too much. A good fence post digger will work well also but you will need to be very careful not to make the hole too big with this tool.

6. Some type of ground insulation in hot dry weather, Anything such as old sheets of plywood ( termites don't like this too much because of all the toxins used to make it) Old boards, leaves or other natural forms of cellulose. You can even use old bits of discarded carpet. Any material that creates a cooler damper area under it will work.

Once you have assembled these items the rest is simple. First you need to locate a likely spot, someplace that has active colonies of sub-terrainean termites. These can usually be located during periods after fall or spring rains have dampened the soil enough to keep it hospitable for them to come to the surface and to construct tunnels made of mud and organics up walls and wooden surfaces. These tunnels allow protection against harsh conditions that would prevent the termites from collecting food otherwise. Breaking into these will show the collector whether they are occupied or not. If they are occupied they should be teeming with termites. If you don't see termites coming out of the broken tunnels watch later for activity to seal these breaks off. Sometimes they are not active in every tunnel all the time.

Good localities to look for termite activity are near gardens where a lot of organics are used in the soil. Other places to look are near debris such as old cardboard boxes, boards, firewood stacks, etc. Even old cow patties in the desert often will yield sizeable colonies under them. The cow patty type of termite, by the way, seems adjusted to a life underneath these things and has a potential for captive rearing outside of the desert regions if a queen can be located and a cow purchased to feed the lot! One can imagine the teeming billions present under the desert soils of the West just waiting for a cow to come along and deliver some food!

Once you have located the ideal place where termites are living in numbers, it is just a simple matter of installing your termite farms. If the place you have located for farming is not on your own property then, of course, you will need permission to install your farms from the owner. Expect some flack, so be prepared. It's not like your really populating an area with bugs that aren't already there by the millions but some people can't seem to connect the dots so that will be up to you to do. All you will be doing is harvesting the termites opportunistically. Try to persuade any landowner insane enough to argue with you, that this is for their own good, since your relocation of these dangerous insects reduces the numbers they have to worry about! Little do they know that more are produced faster than you can say "termite"! If you get a lot of heat from significant others for bringing the termites into the home either lock these people outside or in the garage till they come to their senses or explain to them that termites need a queen in order to repopulate an area and you don't have her so there is nothing to worry about.

After locating active termite colonies all that will be required will be to dig a vertical hole as close to the diameter of your pipe section as is possible and almost as deep. This will need to be done for each pipe/farm so plan the exact layout ahead of time if the area is limited. I recommend placing each farm about two feet apart if possible. When digging the hole for the pipe installation it's important to disturb the ground around the pipe as little as possible so as not to destroy existing tunnels that most likely are there but not seen. After digging the correct sized hole you simply stick the empty pipe section into the hole. The top of the pipe should protrude out of the ground only enough to be able to easily place the cap on the end.

Once the pipe is installed and tightly packed into the ground, making sure no gaps are present around the outside diameter, you're ready to fill the tube with the cardboard packing paper. I simply roll the paper into a tight roll and dampen it with a hose or spray bottle till it's wet but not soggy. If you get it too wet, never mind, it will drain downwards after placing it and will become the ideal dampness automatically. After sufficient dampening, I then put the paper roll into the pipe, having precut it to the proper length prior to the wetting. After installing, place the cap on the pipe and leave in place usually for ten days to two weeks time. If you can't stand not looking, it's okay but don't pull the paper out often or you might destroy incoming termite tunnels that are just getting started. I generally will install around a dozen farms in an area. I do not check or disturb them for at least two weeks and even then not until I see the paper being damaged from the insects. Once I see activity, I will pull the paper tube out and unroll it gently and shake pure and usually large amounts of termites into a sealable plastic container to carry them back to my animals or to store in the refrigerator for later feeding. If your colonies are less than robust I suggest you wait a bit longer for the underground message to get out that food is available and more chemical trails are laid down to direct more termites to your farms. Patience is very important during this initial stage. You will most likely be very surprised when you do this the first few times and will be rewarded with many thousands of insects just for the taking. Each farm will produce these large amounts as long as the basic requirements are met. Keep the ground around the farms damp at all times. Keep replacing paper rolls as needed and be sure to keep them damp but not soggy. I have found that the insects like older paper to feed on so if possible stagger the replacement of paper rolls over time so you always have some newer and some older ones going.

I have had farms that were actively harvested 12 months of the year and others will eventually and unexplainably diminish, sometimes overnight. Generally when they disappear it's because the weather conditions are too dry, hot or cold. Other causes are unknown but populations usually come back in a few weeks to months so be patient and install more farms elsewhere.

The only pests I have ever encountered with this method of farming were small ants that attacked the termites and ate them. Usually ants can be discouraged by seeking out their hills and poisoning them at the source .Do not treat anything around the farms with any insecticides. Termites are easily killed and won't come back to that area for a very long time after poisons are put on the ground. Diatomaceous earth works great to eliminate the ant colonies usually and won't be a risk to your farms.

Termites can be stored in glass or plastic containers with cardboard dampened and rolled up for many months. Keeping them in the house is fine but watch drying out and warm temps. Storing termites in the vegetable section of the fridge works great.

Many times sick or lackluster feeding animals will really perk up when offered termites as food. I have seen animals that would eat nothing else when sick. Smaller chameleons especially love termites and they probably figure into their diets in nature. Often termites will put weight on a seriously ill animal when nothing else will.

Hopefully this will inspire you to try farming termites yourself. Once successful, you won't want to be without them. Whether you keep large or small animals doesn't matter - few will refuse a termite! Even full grown Parson's Chameleons will eat them. If you find that you have too many for your own needs I am sure other keepers would appreciate having the extras.

Don Wells

Don Wells has worked with animals much of his life. His present interests include disseminating proper husbandry techniques for animals kept in captivity. He has kept multitudes of insects and continues to experiment with new species.


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