9 Not-So-Pesky Facts About Termites

iStock.com/Thithawat_s
iStock.com/Thithawat_s

Termites get a lot of hate for chewing through buildings, but the little creatures are far more interesting—and ecologically valuable—than we often give them credit for. Unless, of course, you’re Lisa Margonelli, the author of Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology, a new book that explores their amazing world. Here are nine facts about the highly social—and occasionally pesky—insects that we learned from the book.

1. THERE ARE FAR MORE TERMITES THAN PEOPLE ON EARTH.

Termite queens live up to 25 years, and can lay somewhere around 30,000 eggs a day. As a result, a single mound can be home to millions of individuals at a time. While the numbers vary from study to study, scientists estimate that the biomass of all the termites in the world is at least as great as that of humans.

2. MOST TERMITES AREN’T PESTS.

Of the 2800 named termite species in the world, the majority have no interest in eating your house. Only 28 species are known to chow down on buildings and infrastructure. Most are actually very beneficial to their ecosystems, clearing dead wood, aerating the soil with their intricate tunnel systems, and enhancing plant growth. Researchers have found that contrary to being pests, networks of termite mounds can help make dry environments like savannas more resilient to climate change because of the way termite mounds store nutrients and moisture, among other benefits.

3. TERMITES ARE GOOD FOR CROPS.

Termites can help make soil more fertile. In one study, researchers in Australia found that fields that were home to ants and termites produced 36 percent more wheat, without fertilizer, compared to non-termite fields. Why? Termites help fertilize the soil naturally—their poop, which they use to plaster their tunnels, is full of nitrogen. Their intricate system of underground tunnels also helps rainfall penetrate the soil more deeply, which reduces the amount of moisture that evaporates from the dirt and makes it more likely that the water can be taken up by plants.

4. TERMITES HAVE VERY SPECIFIC ROLES IN THEIR COLONY.

Each termite colony has a queen and king termite (or several), plus workers and soldiers. This caste system, controlled by pheromones produced by the reigning queen, determines not just what different termites do in the colony but how they look. Queens and kings develop wings that, when they’re sexually mature, they use to fly away from their original nest to reproduce and start their own colony. Once they land at the site of their new colony, queens and kings snap off these wings, since they’ll spend the rest of their lives underground. Queens are also physically much larger than other castes: The largest type of termite, an African species called Macrotermes bellicosus, produces queens up to 4 inches long.

Unlike their royal counterparts, most workers and soldiers don’t have either eyes or wings. Worker termites, which are responsible for foraging, building tunnels, and feeding the other castes in the nest, are significantly smaller than queens. M. bellicosus workers, for instance, measure around 0.14 inches. Soldier termites are slightly bigger than workers, with large, sharp mandibles designed to slice up ants and other enemies that might invade the nest.

5. TERMITES ARE ONE OF THE FASTEST ANIMALS IN THE WORLD.

Apologies to cheetahs, but termites hold the record for world’s fastest animal movement. Panamanian termites can clap their mandibles shut at 157 miles per hour. (Compare that to the cheetah’s run, which tops out at about 76 miles per hour.) This quick action allows tiny termite soldiers in narrow tunnels to kill invaders with a single bite.

6. TERMITES ARE SKILLED ARCHITECTS.

In Namibia, quarter-inch-long termites of the genus Macrotermes can move 364 pounds of dirt and 3300 pounds of water each year total in the course of building their 17-foot-tall mounds. Relative to their size, that’s the equivalent of humans building the 163 floors of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, no cranes required. And that’s not even the tallest termite mound around—some can be up to 30 feet high. More impressively, termites cooperate to build these structures without any sort of centralized plan. Engineers are now trying to replicate this decentralized swarm intelligence to build robots that could erect buildings in a similar fashion.

7. TERMITES BUILD THEIR OWN AIR CONDITIONING.

Some termites have developed an incredibly efficient method of climate control in the form of tall, above-ground mounds that sit above their nests. Organized around a central chimney, the structures essentially act as giant lungs, "breathing" air in and out as the temperature outside changes in relation to the temperature inside. Thanks to these convection cycles, termites keep underground temperatures in their nest between roughly 84°F and 90°F.

8. TERMITES ARE FARMERS.

Humans aren’t the only ones cultivating crops. Termites farm, too. They’ve been doing it for more than 25 million years, compared to humans’ 23,000 years. Some species of termite have evolved a symbiotic relationship with Termitomyces fungi, growing fungus in underground gardens for food. When they fly off to create a new colony, termite queens bring along fungus spores from their parent colony to seed the garden that will feed their new nest. Foraging termite workers go out and eat plant material that they can’t fully digest on their own, then deposit their feces on the fungus for it to feed on. They can then eat the fungus. They may also be able to eat some of the plant material after the fungus has sufficiently broken it down. The mutually beneficial relationship has led some scientists to suggest that the fungus, which is much larger in both size and energy production than the termites, could in fact be the one in control of the relationship, potentially releasing chemical pheromones that lead the termites to build the mound they live in together.

9. TERMITES ARE MICROBIAL GOLD MINES.

As scientists begin to understand the huge role that micobiomes play in both the human body and the rest of the world, termites provide a fascinating case study. About 90 percent of the organisms in termite guts aren’t found anywhere else on Earth. In their hindgut alone, they host as many as 1400 species of bacteria. These microbes are so efficient at converting the cellulose-rich wood and dead grass that termites eat into energy, scientists want to harness them to make biofuel from plants.

Want to learn more about termites? Get yourself a copy of Underbug on Amazon for $18.

The Tower of London Welcomes New Baby Ravens for the First Time in 30 Years

Some of the baby ravens born at the Tower of London
Some of the baby ravens born at the Tower of London
Tower of London Twitter (screenshot)

There are some new residents at the Tower of London. They're only about 11 inches tall, are very noisy, and eat rats for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Fortunately, they're also adorable—not to mention protected by legend.

On May 17, the Tower of London announced that their breeding pair of ravens, Huginn and Muninn, had welcomed four healthy chicks, the first born at the Tower since 1989. The ravens are part of an unkindness that's been located at the Tower for centuries as a sort of protective asset. According to legend, the Tower must always have ravens, or both the Tower and the kingdom will fall. It's not exactly clear when the legend began, but according to the Tower, Charles II decreed there must always be six ravens present.

Huginn and Muninn are newer additions, having arrived at the Tower in late 2018, and they weren't expected to breed this spring. So it was a surprise in mid-April when the devoted Tower Ravenmaster, Yeoman Warder Chris Skaife, noticed something exciting going on. "My suspicions were first piqued that we might have a chance of baby chicks when the parents built a huge nest suddenly overnight and then almost immediately the female bird started to sit on it," Skaife said in a Tower press release. On April 23, Skaife noticed the birds flying to the nest with food, but it was only this week he was able to get close enough to see the four healthy chicks. The sight delighted him: "Having worked with the ravens here at the Tower for the last 13 years and getting to know each of them, I feel like a proud father!"

The chicks have grown quickly, already quadrupling in size since they were born, and eat a diet of quail, rats, and mice the Ravenmaster provides. The raven parents have an egalitarian feeding arrangement: Huginn, the male, preps the food and passes it to Muninn, the female, who feeds it to her tiny chicks.

The plan is for one of the chicks to stay at the Tower and join the rest of the ravens there. "As the ravens started to hatch on the 23 April, St. George’s Day, the raven that will be staying at the Tower will be called George or Georgina in honor of the occasion," the Tower explained in a press release. According to The Telegraph, the breeding program at the Tower kicked off in response to a decline in the number of legal raven breeders in the UK.

The last raven chick born at the Tower was Ronald Raven, born May 1, 1989. In his 2018 book, The Ravenmaster: My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London, Skaife wrote that "a baby raven looks a bit like a grotesque miniature gargoyle, but then you see them grow and develop ... It really is wonderful."

The baby ravens born at the Tower of London in 2019
The baby ravens born at the Tower of London in 2019 making some noise
Yeoman Warder Chris Skaife

Dozens of Donkeys, Mini-Donkeys, and Baby Donkeys Are Looking for New Homes

iStock.com/huggy1
iStock.com/huggy1

Cats and dogs aren't the only rescue animals that need permanent homes. At the Humane Society of North Texas (HSNT), there are over 60 donkeys, miniature donkeys, baby donkeys, and Thoroughbred horses up for adoption, the Cleburne Times-Review reports.

Many of the equines at HSNT's ranch in Joshua, Texas came from owners who had to give them up, and others were transferred from different animal rescue groups. As part of the ASPCA’s Help A Horse Home Challenge, HSNT is hosting events to help find new homes for its horses and donkeys.

Between April 26 and June 30 this year, the ASPCA is challenging equine organizations to adopt out as many animals as they can. The groups that see the biggest increases in adoptions between this year and last year's Help A Horse Home Challenge will share $150,000 in grant funding. On May 18 and June 8, HSNT is holding open houses at its ranch for anyone interested in adopting an animal. The events will also be used as opportunities to educate the public about the demands of equine ownership.

If you're not free to swing by one of HSNT's open houses, you can still apply to adopt a horse or donkey. Interested owners can fill out and submit this form [PDF] to equine@hsnt.org. And if you'd like to spend time with baby and mini-donkeys without taking one home, HSNT is also looking for volunteers.

[h/t Cleburne Times-Review]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER