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.

Chimpanzees Bond by Watching Movies Together, Too

Windzepher/iStock via Getty Images
Windzepher/iStock via Getty Images

Scientists at the Wolfgang Kohler Primate Research Center in Germany recently discovered that, like humans, chimpanzees bond when they watch movies together, the BBC reports.

In the study, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, researchers stationed pairs of chimpanzees in front of screens that showed a video of a family of chimps playing with a young chimp. They found that afterward, the chimps would spend more time grooming and interacting with each other—or simply being in the same part of the room—than they would without having watched the video.

They gave the chimps fruit juice to keep them calm and occupied while they viewed the video, and they chose a subject that chimps have previously proven to be most interested in: other chimps. They also used eye trackers to ensure the chimps were actually watching the video. If you’ve ever watched a movie with friends, you might notice similarities between the chimps’ experience and your own. Drinks (and snacks) also keep us calm and occupied while we watch, and we like to watch movies about other humans. Since this study only showed that chimps bond over programs about their own species, we don’t know if it would work the same way if they watched something completely unrelated to them, like humans do—say, The Lion King.

Bonding through shared experiences was thought to be one of the traits that make us uniquely human, and some researchers have argued that other species don’t have the psychological mechanisms to realize that they’re even sharing an experience with another. This study suggests that social activities for apes don’t just serve utilitarian purposes like traveling together for safety, and that they’re capable of a more human-like social closeness.

The part that is uniquely human about this study is the fact that they were studying the effect of a screen, as opposed to something less man-made. The chimps in question have participated in other studies, so they may be more accustomed to that technology than wild apes. But the study demonstrates that we’re not the only species capable of social interaction for the sake of social interaction.

[h/t BBC]

10 Facts You Should Know About Mosquitoes

tskstock/iStock via Getty Images
tskstock/iStock via Getty Images

Between the itching and the welts and the fears of mosquito-borne viruses, it's easy to forget that mosquitoes are a wonder of evolution, and that maybe they don't get a fair shake from us. Of more than 3000 known species, only 80 actually bite people, and at least one eats other mosquitoes for us. They grow from egg to adult in just five days, begin mating within minutes of hatching, and possess, by way of their stinging mouthparts, some of the coolest appendages in the animal kingdom.

1. Mosquitoes are excellent flyers in bad weather.

The average raindrop is 50 times heavier than the average mosquito, yet they buzz around in the rain with no problems. If a Boeing 747 got whacked with a similarly scaled-up raindrop, there would be 2375 tons of water coming down on it, and things probably wouldn’t turn out as well as they do for the mosquito. How do the insects do it?

A common urban legend said that the bugs were nimble enough to dodge the drops. A few years ago, a team of engineers from the Georgia Institute of Technology watched real mosquitoes and Styrofoam dummy mosquitoes with a high-speed camera during a rainy flight to see if that’s what was really happening. They found that the bugs don’t fly fast enough to dodge the drops, but their slowness is what keeps them from getting knocked out of the sky. A mosquito’s low mass even at slow speed doesn’t provide enough of a target for a raindrop to splash on collision. Instead, the drop just deforms, and doesn’t transfer enough momentum to the mosquito to disrupt its flight.

2. Texas is the mosquito capital of America.

Of the 3000 species of mosquitoes around the world, at least 150 are found in the United States, and 85 of those call Texas home. When people say everything's bigger in Texas, you can also include the biodiversity of the state's biting, disease-carrying insects.

3. Some mosquitoes are truly dangerous to humans ...

The female mosquito, which is the one that stings and sucks blood, is an incredible transmitter of disease and, because of that, the deadliest animal in the world. Each year, the malaria parasites they transmit kill 2 million to 3 million people and infect another 200 million or more. They also spread pathogens that cause yellow fever, dengue fever, Rift Valley fever, Chikungunya and West Nile disease.

4. ... and some mosquitoes are harmless.

Not every species of mosquito sucks blood from people, and among those that do, not every one transmits disease. The blood suckers don’t even need to bite you for every meal. Males live entirely on nectar and other plant fluids, and the females’ diet is primarily plant-based, too. Most of the time, they only go after people when they’re ready to reproduce, because blood contains lipids, proteins, and other nutrients needed for the production of eggs.

5. MosquitoEs actually help the environment.

When you’re rubbing calamine lotion all over yourself, mosquitoes might not seem to serve any purpose but to annoy you, but many species play important ecological roles. The mosquitoes Aedes impiger and Aedes nigripes, which gather in thick clouds in Arctic Russia and Canada, are an important food source for migrating birds. Farther south, birds, insects, spiders, salamanders, lizards, frogs, and fish also eat different mosquito species regularly. Plants need them, too, and some, like the blunt-leaved orchid and endangered monkeyface orchid, rely on mosquitoes as their primary pollinator.

Some mosquito species are also excellent at mosquito control. Species of the genus Toxorhynchites feed on the larvae and immature stages of other mosquitoes and will sometimes even cannibalize members of their own species.

6. Mosquitoes are amazing hunters (as if we needed to tell you that).

Mosquitoes are adept at picking up on the chemicals given off by their human hosts. They can detect the carbon dioxide in our breath, the 1-octen-3-ol in our breath and sweat, and other organic substances we produce with the 70-plus types of odor and chemical receptors in their antennae. These receptors can pick up traces of chemicals from hundreds of feet away, and once the mosquito closes in, it tracks its meal chemically and also visually—and they’re fond of people wearing dark colors.

7. Mosquitoes can be picky.

If it seems like you’re always covered head to toe by bites while people who were sitting right next to you only have one or two, it’s not just paranoia; the skeeters actually are out to get you. Some people happen to give off more of the odors and compounds that mosquitoes find simply irresistible, while others emit less of those and more of the compounds that make them unattractive to mosquitoes—either by acting as repellents or by masking the compounds that mosquitoes would find attractive.

8. A female mosquito's mouth is primed for sucking blood.

A mosquito doesn’t simply sink its proboscis into your skin and start sucking. What you see sticking out of a mosquito’s face is the labium, which sheaths the mouthparts that really do all the work. The labium bends back when a mosquito bites, allowing these other parts to pass through its tip and do their thing. The sharp, pointed mandibles and maxillae, which both come in pairs, are used to pierce the skin, and the hollow hypopharynx and the labrum are used to deliver saliva and draw blood, respectively.

9. Mosquito saliva prevents blood clotting.

The saliva that gets pumped out from the hypopharynx during a bite is necessary to get around our blood’s tendency to clot. It contains a grab bag of chemicals that suppress vascular constriction, blood clotting and platelet aggregation, keeping our blood from clogging up the mosquitoes' labrum and ruining their meal.

10. Mosquitoes can explode.

Blood pressure makes a mosquito's meal easier by helping to fill its stomach faster, but urban legend says it can also lead to their doom. Story goes, you can flex a muscle close to the bite site or stretch your skin taut so the mosquito can’t pull out its proboscis and your blood pressure will fill the bug until it bursts. The consensus among entomologists seems to be that this is bunk, but there is a more complicated way of blowing the bugs up. To make a blood bomb, you’ve got to sever the mosquito’s ventral nerve cord, which transmits information about satiety. When it's cut, the cord can’t tell the mosquito’s brain that its stomach is full, so it’ll keep feeding until it reaches critical mass. At least one researcher found that mosquitoes clueless about how full they were would keep sucking even after their guts had exploded, sending showers of blood spilling out of their blown-out back end.

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