“Busy Bodies,” by Amia Srinivasan. The New Yorker, 9/17/2018.
Who would have thought I would ever read about termites, let alone enjoy it, at least since I was 10 years old and fascinated with all insects. But understanding of termites has grown since then, and I needed to bring myself up-to-date. Also, I once worked with a graduate student with the surname Srinivasan, the same name as the New Yorker author. I can still hear the professor calling out from the far end of the lab, “SRINI!”
The queen, who does nothing but lay eggs, swells up to about the size of your thumb. She lives for decades, the longest life span of any insect. She cannot move and has long since chewed off her antennae to concentrate on procreation. Her offspring constantly feed and clean her. (Is it an honor to be chosen to service the queen? Is it an honor to be the queen?)
The huge termite mounds reaching 30 feet that we see in National Geographic photos, are not the nests. The nest is about 8 feet deep in the ground below. The mound is only to ventilate the nest, to get rid of the carbon dioxide and bring in oxygen. It has been described as the lung of the colony. The colony has about the same metabolic rate as a 900 pound cow. The internal structure of the mounds are “fantastically beautiful,” an “intricate structure of interweaving tunnels and passageways, radiating chambers, galleries, archways, and spiral staircases.”
Termites build all of this without any central planning, no architects, engineers, or blueprints. Individual termites are not particularly intelligent. Put a few in a petri dish, and they will wander around aimlessly. But put in enough under the right conditions, “and they will build you a cathedral.”
Some scientists consider the mound as part of the termite, rather than of the environment. Together, insects, mound, and nest, form a single living thing, a self-recognizing cognitive system with a sense of its own boundaries, what used to be called a “superorganism.”
Termites, as has recently been found, are a form of cockroach that separated off and co-evolved about 200 million years ago and are now classified under the cockroach order, Blattodea. It happened when some cockroaches ingested a few wood-digesting microbes. (Termites are not ants!)
There are lots of species of termites: 2,600. Only 28 are considered invasive pests.
The termite gut contains hundreds or even thousands of species of microbes that convert plant material into energy. Many of those species exist nowhere else.
There, now you know more than you did about termites. Read the article to learn more.