Validation and extension of the Tea Bag Index to collect decomposition data from termite-rich ecosystems

Aloysius Teo, Nadiah P. Kristensen, Joost A. Keuskamp, Theodore A. Evans, Maosheng Foo, Ryan A. Chisholm

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


The Tea Bag Index (TBI) is a standardised and cheap method to quantify microbial-driven decomposition by measuring the mass loss of tea within tea bags. Termites are known to damage the bags to access the content, rendering the method less suitable for termite-rich ecosystems. Extension of the TBI to accommodate and incorporate the influence of termites would broaden its applicability to include termite-rich ecosystems, such as tropical forests.

We extended the original TBI by applying physical and chemical termite-exclusion methods. Tea mass loss and the proportion of tea bags detected by termites in the original TBI were also recorded to infer the role of termites in litter decomposition. TBI estimates derived from the original and extended TBI were compared, benchmarked against global estimates, and validated with time-series mass loss data.

Using the original TBI, we found that termites damaged up to 80 % of tea bags and consumed the recalcitrant fraction of tea in several of them, leaving only 20 % of tea bags from which TBI estimates could be retrieved. The physical termite-exclusion treatment completely eliminated termite-infringement, thus preserving the full sample size for estimating TBI parameters. The chemical termite-exclusion treatment also successfully excluded termites, but potentially inhibited microbial decomposition and made TBI estimates unreliable. In the absence of termite-infringement, both the TBI estimates and time-series analysis revealed a low decomposition rate compared to other measurements in tropical and temperate regions.

We propose an extended TBI, in which the physical termite-exclusion treatment is used to preserve the retrieval rate of TBI parameters and reliably measure microbial-driven decomposition, while the original TBI is used to incorporate the contribution of termites in driving litter mass loss. By characterising both termite- and microbial-driven decomposition, the extended TBI will provide a comprehensive understanding of decomposition and its drivers in termite-rich ecosystems, and permit global comparisons.
Original languageEnglish
Article number150639
Number of pages10
Publication statusPublished - May 2020


  • Litter bag
  • Carbon mineralization
  • Termite-exclusion
  • Recalcitrant fraction
  • Citizen science
  • Tropical forest


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