Livestock Research for Rural Development 30 (1) 2018 Guide for preparation of papers LRRD Newsletter

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Indigenous knowledge on ecosystem services and management of termites among rural communities in Uganda`s rangelands

Mali B, Okello S, Ocaido M and Nalule A S

College of Veterinary Medicine, Animal Resources and Biosecurity, Makerere University. PO Box 7062, Kampala, Uganda


A cross sectional study was carried out in Nakasongola District located in Central Uganda to determine termite importance and community practices for their utilization and management. Nakasongola District was chosen due to its high termite mound density. With the help of District officials, one sub-county was selected. Four Parishes within the Sub County were selected and two villages were randomly selected from each Parish. A total of 384 respondents participated in the study which entailed the use of interviewer administered questionnaires, followed by engagement in focus group discussions with members of the community. The most knowledgeable on the subject within each household was chosen for the study. Door to door administration of the questionnaires was carried out beginning from the eastern side of each village, all the way to the western side. Two focus group discussions, each containing twelve members were held in each village. Descriptive statistics using SPSS software (IBM SPSS statistics 24) were used to analyze data collected. Results were presented in graphical and tabular format. Termite roles within the community included soil fertility improvement, food resource for both humans and livestock, medicinal values, warning mechanism against potential danger, use of mound soil for construction and entire mounds as land marks. Mechanisms for termite management and control included cultivation of crops that either repel or are not affected by termites. Tobacco, red pepper and pine were regarded as repulsive to termites while sweet potatoes, bananas, coffee, citrus fruits, mango, tomato, cabbage and jackfruit were not affected by termites. Other methods included mound flooding, pesticide use, harvesting of castes plus mound excavation to extract and destroy the queen. The latter was considered the most effective method (70.6%) for colony obliteration. Management of termite population should entail methods aimed at controlling their colony sizes through use of termite repellant or non-attractant crops in addition to sustainable harvesting of termites and mound soil for community utilization.

Key words: castes, harvesting


Termites play key roles in natural ecosystem function ranging from provision of food and herbage for other life forms to nutrient recycling through decomposition and tunneling that result in soil aeration (Bignell and Eggleton 2000). The fungus growing species in Africa consume all dead wood and close to 50% of leaf litter within forests (Bignell and Eggleton 2000). Termites however are collectively regarded as pests yet serious damage to crop is done by less than 5% of existing species in Africa (Sileshi et al 2008). Some species such as Macrotermes subhyalinus which are among the most pestiferous subterranean termites are rated by farmers as one of the most important food resources known to agricultural communities, depicting their deep understanding of diversity, abundance and distribution of termites within their locality (Nyeko and Olubayo 2005). Rural farming communities facing termite problems are therefore a good source of vital information for they possess a clear insight into termite ecology and taxonomy, enabling them to practice control measures based on their indigenous knowledge. Approaches to termite control without hampering their ecosystem services are necessary to promote sustainable agriculture and food security in Africa (Sileshi et al 2009). While ensuring that the positive benefits of termite presence are not lost, farmers’ views on importance, management and control of termites forms a basis upon which easily adoptable technologies for mitigation of termite vegetation destruction can be crafted (Nyeko et al 2004). Prevention of termite eradication coupled with promotion of vegetation resilience can be achieved through integration of skills and indigenous technical knowledge of farmers with modern scientific knowledge (Sileshi et al 2008a).


The study took place in Nakasongola District located in Central Uganda (Map 1). This district lies within the nation’s rangelands at a height between 1000-1400m above sea level, Nakasongola District covers an area of 3509.9 km2 and is bordered by Apac and Lira Districts to the North, Masindi to the west, Luwero in the south and Kayunga District to the East. Rainfall ranges from 875mm-1000mm per annum (Cook 2005). Nakasongola was chosen for the study due to its high termite mound density range of 80-256 mounds per hectare and the apparent extensive range degradation blamed on vegetation destruction due to termite activity (Sekamatte et al 2001;Mugerwa et al 2011).

Map 1. Nakasongola District (Cook 2005)
Study design

A cross sectional study was carried out in Nakasongola District located in Central Uganda. . With the help of District officials, one sub-county within the District with the highest termite mound density was selected. Four parishes were selected from the sub-county and two villages were randomly selected from each parish.

The cross sectional survey sample size was determined using the formula: n=Z2pq/e2


Z- The statistic at 95% confidence interval

p- Proportion of interest in the study population

q- 1-p

e- error

We use the 50 % level to maximize the above expression at 95% confidence interval, thus;

p = 0.5, q = 0.5, z = 1.96, e = 0.05

By substitution in the formula; n= (1.962 x 0.5 x 0.5)/0.05 2

n= 384 respondents

A total of 48 respondents were interviewed in each village.

The study involved the use of interviewer administered questionnaires followed by engagement in focus group discussions with members of the community. Based on selection by household members, the most knowledgeable on the subject within each household was chosen for the study. Door to door administration of the questionnaires was carried out beginning from the eastern side of each village, all the way to the western side. Two focus group discussions, each containing twelve members were held in each village. Descriptive statistics using SPSS software (IBM SPSS statistics 24) were used to analyze data collected. Results were presented in graphical and tabular format.


Importance of termites to the community

Despite the damage inflicted on crops by termites, community members acknowledged their values as food for human, pigs and poultry. Humans fed on alates commonly referred to as white ants while animals were given worker and soldier castes. The alates of Macrotermes sp3 are harvested by the minority (11.8%). The products derived from each termite species are as shown in table 1. White ant food products are regarded as highly palatable and nutritious. While the alates are claimed to possess medicinal value for humans and work well in combination with particular herbs, soldier and worker castes are believed to contribute to the growth of chicken. In addition, termites aid in vegetation breakdown, soil aeration and drainage. Soil derived from mounds acts as a source of minerals for animals and material for manufacture of durable bricks that are used in house construction. Mounds act as reference points or landmarks used for acreage demarcation and present animals with high ground to rest during heavy downpour. The presence of Microtermes sp1 is indicative of soil fertility. Termite presence provides a diversion for animals such as birds and snakes which end up preying on them as opposed to farmer’s animals such as chicks. The mounds also provide shelter to snakes which could have alternatively sought shelter within houses of community members. Through vibrating their bodies and tapping on hard objects with their heads, they collectively create a rattling sound that alerts community members within the homestead of the presence of thieves or wild animals. Occasionally the community derives income through sale of alates that are commonly referred to as white ants.

Table 1. Community perceptions on termite importance

Termite species

Local name


Macrotermes bellicosus


Food (alates), mound soil (construction and mineral supplement), Animal feed (workers and soldiers), crop destruction, income.

Microtermes sp1


Food (alates and mushrooms), animal feeds (soldiers and workers), crop destruction, income.

Pseudocanthotermes sp1


Crop destruction

Macrotermes sp3


Food (alates)

Macrotermes subhyalinus


Food (alates and mushrooms), mound soil (construction), Animal feed (workers and soldiers), income

Odontotermes sp1


Mushroom production

Cubitermes sp1


Mound soil (construction), animal feed

The methods used by the community in management each of the termite species are as shown in table 2. Respondents believe that the presence of specific cultivated crops leads to the attraction and build-up of termite population. The crops believed to attract termites are shown in figure 1. In order to decrease on the termite activity farmers decided to plant crops that either repel or are not affected by termites. Red pepper, Tobacco and Pine were the plants of choice for termite repulsion. The cultivated crops chosen by the community and perceived as not affected by termites are shown in figure 2. Aside from shift in crops cultivated, majority of the community members (88.2%) have harvested termites. The termite species mainly harvested are Macrotermes bellicosus, Macrotermes subhyalinus and Microtermes sp1. Alates of all species are harvested at night during the rainy season when swarming occurs. The process involves using a lamp placed in a hole or container. Alates are attracted to the light and are trapped in the container or hole as their numbers build up. Macrotermes bellicosus soldier and worker castes are harvested throughout the year by breaking off a mound chunk and lightly tapping the side of the mound close to the hole created. The termites are harvested either by use of cloth or thin plant stalks that soldiers bite and hang onto. Alternatively, the termites are swept into a container as they emerge from the mound. Microtermes sp1 alate, soldier and worker castes are occasionally harvested all year round. They possess hypogeal mounds and are harvested by lightly drumming close to the colony hole found on the ground surface. A cloth is placed over the hole to prevent the alates from flying away and a tiny hole is left for their escape. They are redirected by use of a banana leaf rolled into a cylinder to a container placed close to their point of exit. Alternatively, the colony hole is covered with a tent constructed using banana leaves. A tiny hole is created on the tent to let in light. Within the tent, a hole is dug and lined with banana leaves. When the drumming commences, alates which fly and attempt to leave through the tiny hole in the tent fall to the ground and are trapped, once they get into the hole created within the tent. The process of drumming is halted once swarming occurs. Queen harvesting involves excavation and total destruction of the mound. Harvesting is followed by processing which (occasionally carried out by 71% of the community) involves sun drying, boiling, roasting and pounding. The Microtermes sp1 alate is considered a delicacy when still alive and can therefore be consumed either fresh or after processing. The Macrotermes bellicosus queen is not harvested for consumption but rather with the intent of destroying the colony. This method of colony obliteration is considered by the community (70.6%) as the most effective way of controlling termites.

Table 2. Community methods for management of termites

Termite species

Local name

Methods of management

Macrotermes bellicosus


Planting crops that repel or are not attacked by termites, flooding the mound with water, use of pesticides, queen extraction, harvesting
alates for human consumption plus soldiers and workers for poultry feed.

Microtermes sp1


Harvesting of alates for human consumption

Pseudocanthotermes sp1


Planting crops not attacked by termites and dusting grain stores with red pepper.

Macrotermes subhyalinus


Planting crops that repel/ resistant to termite activity, harvesting alates for human consumption plus soldiers and workers for poultry feed.

Odontotermes sp1


Use of pesticides, having poultry feed on the termites through the large opening of the mounds and flooding the mound with water.

Figure 1. Crops that attract termites Figure 2. Crops that are not affected by termite presence

Other methods used by the community for termite population mitigation included pesticide use (29.4%), breaking the mound so birds can feast on termites emerging from the mounds (5.9%), flooding the mound with water to kill the queen (11.8%) and dusting grain storage areas with red pepper (5.9%). Inspite of the above methods, community members feel that no impact has been created in controlling the termite population explosion within the area. The reasons put forward for this scenario were attributed to the rapid multiplication of termite species within mounds and harvesting of termites mainly focusing on alates yet the castes that create the greatest damage, the workers are minimally consumed or controlled. The tedious exercise of queen extraction due to mound size ofMacrotermes bellicosus and depth in the case of Macrotermes subhyalinus coupled with swarming that results into formation of new colonies creates a dent in farmer’s efforts to control the termite population.


In spite of termite existence having detrimental effects to vegetation, the study did show that they do have beneficial attributes that are of value to the farming communities. Their importance in enhancing soil fertility as reported by farmers is probably the reason why they are central in studies assessing micro-fauna effects on soil structure (Ayuke 2010; Mettrop et al 2103). Mushroom producing termites provide a delicacy for the communities surrounded by termitaria and their palatability as described by its consumers could be the reason why studies to prove whether termites did produce Termitomyces spps mushrooms (Gowda and Rajagopal 1990) and domestication of their cultivation are underway (Zhang et al 2010). The belief of communities in termite soil mineral richness, resulting in mound geophagy by animals and humans (Sileshi et al 2009) elicited studies that entail organic matter (Adekayode and Ogunkoya 2009) and mineral (Mahaney et al 1999; Dhembare 2013) analysis of termite mounds. In some developing countries such as Laos soil derived from mounds has been incorporated in gardens (Shuichi et al 2011) due to its endowment in organic matter and minerals. Mound soil binding ability could be the reason why it is a preferred building material among local communities. In Burkina Faso suitability rendering it as a material for construction has been tested (Millogo et al 2011). In addition, their use as a refuge for livestock during heavy down pour and shelter for lizards and snakes as seen in Australia (Thomson and Thomson 2015) affirms the communities need for termitaria presence which house reptiles as opposed to occupancy of their homesteads. On the other hand the termite head vibrational warning systems of predator intrusion which according to Hager and Kirchner 2013, are used as a colony defense mechanism, inadvertently alert homestead occupants of animal or human presence and could aid communities in warding off livestock thieves or predators.

In recognition of termite importance, attempts to maintain human termite coexistence ushered in community management strategies involving shift from crops that attract, to those that repel or are not affected by termite presence, suggesting endeavors to sustainably control colony population. Documentation of termite infestation of maize, cassava and sugarcane highlight termite affinity for these crops (Mutsamba et al 2016; Ogedegbe et al 2015; Kolo et al 2005). Therefore economically useful repellant species of plants such as pine are a welcome alternative for the community and have sparked off efforts to introduce termite resistant food crops such as rice for tropical Africa (Togola et al 2012).

Aside from the above, the introduction of pesticides to rural communities as a termite control strategy created ambivalence in regard to need for termite control vis-ŕ-vis land pollution due to pesticide chemicals. More ecofriendly solutions other than termite consumption have been sought through combining minimal pesticide use, with the most effective method of termite control which is queen extraction (Wagkari and Getu 2015).

The consumption of alates as human food is not only a common practice within the study area but also in other parts of Uganda, Africa and other developing countries. The nutritional benefits obtained from consumption of termites have been expounded in studies carried out in Nigeria (Ntukuyoh et al 2012) which depict the insects as highly nutritious. This has also paved way for scientific assessment of their medicinal benefits as pointed out by the community (Figueiredo et al 2015). Utilizing light as a means of trapping these insects is common practice and has proved to be the most effective method for mass harvesting of the winged caste. It is for this reason that modifications to the indigenous systems are underway in order to improve the ease and efficiency of the practice (Ayieko et al 2011). Due to the extensive trapping of alates, forms of processing were probably necessary to preserve the bulk of the harvest. Boiling, sun drying and roasting as seen in this study and parts of Kenya (Ayieko et al 2011) is the method of choice among alate harvesting communities. Even though the community acknowledged the importance of soldier and worker castes as animal feed, their harvest is not practiced at the same level and intensity as that of the alates. This probably was due to the difficulty in accessing the former which are usually within mounds or underground and necessitated tedious processes such as mound breakage or excavation. The minimal harvest of these major culprits could probably be as sighted by the farmers, the reason why termite crop and vegetation destruction are still felt within the community albeit termite consumption.



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Received 17 September 2017; Accepted 16 October 2017; Published 1 January 2018

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