By Hunter Thornfeldt
Let’s face it – nobody likes termites. Considered a pest the world over, they are capable of quickly and silently destroying wooden structures from the inside-out. Termites are also one of the world’s most successful insect species, colonizing every continent except for Antarctica. They thrive in tropical environments; South America, for example, is home to over 400 species. Their ubiquity means that it is important to consider using termite-resistant lumber when beginning any construction project.
Like other highly successful insect species such as ants and bees, termites have a complex social hierarchy and even engage in fungiculture (the cultivation of fungus). Over 30 species of mushrooms, called Termitomyces, are entirely dependent on termites for their survival. Termites cultivate these species near their food sources, causing the fungus to infect trees. For termites, fungus-infected wood is not only higher in protein, but is also easier to digest than healthy wood. This symbiosis fills an important ecological niche, aiding in the rapid breakdown of plant material and providing important nutrients for other organisms. However, this symbiosis can also result in the rapid destruction of wooden structures. Where termites are found, so too are fungal species which aid in decomposition.
Termites cause billions of dollars in damage every year. This economic damage is worst in warm, tropical environments such as Africa and South America. Thus, it is important to consider building with termite-resistant lumber, especially in warm and/or humid environments. Because many termites rely on a symbiotic relationship with fungus in order to digest food, it is even better if one can find lumber that is resistant to both termites and fungus.
The answer? Teak. Native to south and southeast Asia, this tropical hardwood possesses properties that protect not only against warping, cracking, and decomposition, but also against termites and fungus. Tectoquinone, a substance found in teak, is toxic to many insect species, including termites and mosquitoes. Quinones are found in various plant and animal species, often demonstrating antimicrobial, antiparasitic, and even anti-tumoral properties. Tectoquinone not only repels insects, but also fungus and moisture. By repelling moisture, Tectoquinone in turn prevents warping and rot. In fact, simply submerging an otherwise vulnerable wood species in a solution of Tectoquinone imparts many of these properties onto lumber which may otherwise be easily ruined by insects, fungus, or moisture.
These incredible properties make teak ideal for use in deck railings, outdoor furniture, cutting boards, countertops, flooring, boat docks, and even marine vessels. Additionally, teak is considered to be one of the most aesthetically-pleasing hardwoods, with a rich golden-brown color, beautiful grain, and natural oils which work to prevent discoloration and decay. When used in outdoor building projects, teak can often last over 70 years, remaining in pristine condition despite exposure to rain, sun, and humidity. In comparison to other woods, teak is a low-maintenance, durable, and aesthetically-pleasing choice for both outdoor and indoor building projects.
With its unique properties and beautiful appearance, teak will continue to be a favored hardwood for construction across the globe. Additionally, research into compounds such as Tectoquinone holds promise for imparting some of these characteristics onto lumber sourced from more vulnerable species. While teak has been used for much of human history, we are only now beginning to understand the many uses of this tree and its valuable organic compounds. By investing in the research and sustainable cultivation of teak, we can continue to unlock the many secrets of this long-revered plant.