9 Not-So-Pesky Facts About Termites

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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.

Pet Obesity is Causing Big Health Problems, According to a New Report

iStock/dennisvdw
iStock/dennisvdw

If you’ve recently picked up your cat and felt your back give out, your furry friend may be among the 60 percent of the feline population that’s overweight. Dogs are also getting chubbier: about 56 percent of pet pooches are obese.

According to Banfield Pet Hospital, America's largest general veterinary practice with more than 1000 hospitals nationwide, those fat cats and chunky puppies are at risk for chronic health issues. In a new report, the hospital finds that osteoarthritis (OA) in pets is on the rise, with a 66 percent increase in dogs and a 150 percent increase in cats over the past 10 years.

Osteoarthritis is a kind of arthritis caused by inflammation or damage in joint tissue. Genetics, injury, or bone abnormalities can all be factors. The disease is chronic and degenerative and can make it difficult for pets to move around as they get older.

Excess weight can both precede OA and make it worse. When a pet is overweight, they can develop chronic pain that leads to stress on joints. If they already have OA, that joint discomfort can prevent them from being active, leading to weight gain. That worsens the condition, and the cycle continues.

A dog is 2.3 times more likely to be diagnosed with OA if it's obese, while cats are 1.2 times more likely. Dogs suffering from the condition tend to display symptoms like putting their weight off to one side when sitting, avoiding stairs, or appearing uninterested in playing. Cats might have loose or matted hair because they can't maneuver to groom certain parts of their body.

Although OA can be seen at any age, it’s often mistaken for old age and a pet slowing down naturally. If you notice your pet is either soft around the middle or moving more slowly, it’s best to see a veterinarian. Pets who are overweight or suffering from OA—or both—can benefit from treatments like special diets.

There Are 2373 Squirrels in New York's Central Park, Census Finds

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iStock/maximkabb

Central Park in New York City is home to starlings, raccoons, and exotic zoo animals, but perhaps the most visible fauna in the area are the eastern gray squirrels. Thanks to a team of citizen scientists, we now know exactly how many of the rodents occupy the space—approximately 2373 of them, according to a census reported by Smithsonian.

In October 2018, a group called the Squirrel Census—with help from the Explorers Club, the NYU Department of Environmental Studies, Macaulay Honors College, the Central Park Conservancy, and the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation—organized a squirrel survey across all 840 acres of Central Park. For 11 days, more than 300 volunteers staked out their sections of the park twice a day—at dawn and dusk when the crepuscular animals are most active—and noted each squirrel they spotted. They also recorded how the squirrels looked, vocalized, behaved, and reacted to humans.

The research was analyzed and presented at an Explorers Club event in New York City on June 20. All the non-peer-reviewed findings—which includes a printed report, an audio report on a vinyl 45, 37 pages of data, collectible squirrel cards, and large maps of the park and the squirrel locations—are available to purchase for $75 from the Squirrel Census website.

This isn't the first time a massive census has been conducted of a public park's squirrel population. In 2011, the Squirrel Census launched with its first survey of Atlanta's Inman Park. They've conducted satellite squirrel counts at other parks, but Central Park is just the second park the organization has investigated in person.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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