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.

Elderly Sloths Live Out Their Golden Years at a 'Retirement Home' in Wales Zoo

iStock.com/TheDman
iStock.com/TheDman

Where do sloths go when they retire from a cushy career of tree-dwelling and leaf-munching? To Wales, apparently. As The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports, the Folly Farm in Pembrokeshire operates a retirement home for sloths of advanced age.

By removing older sloths from zoos and bringing them to the new facility in the southwest of Wales, space is freed up for younger sloths to mate. In turn, this helps conservation efforts, while also ensuring that older sloths get the love and care they deserve.

Much like human senior citizens, older sloths prefer to eat softer foods, such as boiled root vegetables. Their caretakers also ensure they get a regular dose of cod liver oil supplements to keep them healthy. The animals are still active, but with limited mobility. If they show any signs of struggling, staff might lower a tree's branches to make it easier for them to get down, according to zoo curator Tim Morphew.

Currently, the Folly Farm—which opened the retirement home last year—has two residents. Lightcap, a two-toed sloth, is one of the oldest sloths in Europe at 34 years old. Her roommate, Tuppee, is 10 years younger, but he’s also more cantankerous.

“Like many older men, Tuppee has been known to be a bit grumpy and even misbehaves at times but we know he’s a softie at heart,” Morphew told the BBC. “We’re hoping some older, female company will be a good influence on him and bring out the softer side of his nature. Sloths aren’t known for being social animals, but as they get older, we’ve found they do like company.”

Considering that sloths are pretty defenseless creatures, the animals live surprisingly long lives. Two-toed sloths live about 20 years in the wild, but can live more than 40 years in a zoo. In 2017, the world’s oldest sloth—a Hoffmann’s two-toed sloth named Miss C—died at an Australian zoo at the age of 43.

Morphew says the zoo may expand its sloth retirement home in the future.

[h/t The Atlanta Journal-Constitution]

These Custom-Made Slippers Are Designed to Look Exactly Like Your Pet

Cuddle Clones
Cuddle Clones

What gift do you get for the friend who’s completely obsessed with their cat or dog? Fluffy slippers that look just like their pet, of course. As Delish reports, Louisville, Kentucky-based company Cuddle Clones lets you upload photos of your pet and decide how you want them to appear—whether it’s in the form of a plush “clone” or furry footwear that you can sport around the house.

Many of the slippers are eerily lifelike and bear an uncanny resemblance to the animal they’re modeled after. “We do our very best to ensure that your Cuddle Clone captures the characteristics and likeness of your pet to the absolute best of our abilities,” the company writes on its website. “We are very proud of our products and how much they resemble the actual pets.”

A woman wears personalized dog slippers
Cuddle Clones

If customers aren’t completely satisfied with their order, Cuddle Clones offers a money-back guarantee. The process of ordering a pair of slippers is simple but takes some time. First, customers are prompted to enter their pet’s name and select its species—dog, cat, horse, and “other” are listed—as well as its breed.

From there, they will be asked to upload multiple photos of their pet’s face, chest, tail, fur color, and physique from various angles (including their right side, left side, and even their backside). They can then choose the eye color, list any distinguishing characteristics, and decide if they want the plush version of their pet to appear in any particular position.

The slippers, which are made in China, take eight weeks to make and ship to the U.S. However, customers can pay extra for expedited orders. They’re a bit pricey at $199, but then again, you’re paying for a handcrafted, personalized product.

Personalized cat slippers
Cuddle Clones

In addition to the “clones” and slippers, Cuddle Clones will also make personalized golf club covers, purses, and holiday stockings with your pet’s face on them. That way, you can take your fur baby with you anywhere, whether you’re on the golf course or out on the town.

[h/t Delish]

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