A big fan of the tiny termite

By Andrew T. Sensenig

I am often asked, ?What is your favorite insect?? I usually respond with ?termite.? This is not because I work for a building insurance or extermination company, but because the effects of these creatures are marvelous in their own right.

Termites have had, and still have, a massive impact on planet Earth. Over vast areas of the tropics, strange mounds and spires dot the landscape.

In colonies consisting of millions of individuals, termites build magnificent cathedrals of saliva, sand and feces reaching up to 20 feet high. This way, they can live in the darkness and damp, and only come out at night to harvest dead grass.

The queen is buried deep in the cathedral, and would take effort to extract with a pick axe. If the wall is broken, soldiers and workers scurry about to defend and patch the breach.

Some Africans enjoy the delicacy of queen termites, which can grow to almost the size of hotdogs, and spend much time extracting her from her guards, and then eating her.

One night in Zimbabwe in 2004, I was puzzled by the crunching noise all around me. I turned on my flashlight, and millions of termites were timbering dry grass stems like Canadian lumberjacks in a spruce forest.

Termites derive all their calories from dead plant material. Dry, dead grass is devoid of many nutrients and consists mostly of long chains of carbohydrates called cellulose.

Do not mix up cellulose with cellulite. The former keeps termites in business, and the latter, plastic surgeons. Cellulose is hard to digest, and termites employ the skills of protists in their gut to break it apart and release the sugar.

These protists are so essential to termites, that young termites sidle up to the anus of older termites to ingest the protist containing feces.

The digestion of cellulose in termites produces massive amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas. This species of gas is 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide in causing atmospheric warming. Millions of years ago, termites were probably responsible for significant global warming, and still are.

The lifestyle of working for a colony, living underground, and living in strict symbiosis with cellulose digesting protists produces a set of ?rules? for termite life. One of the world?s greatest living biologists, Edward O. Wilson sums up the termite code of ethics well in his 1998 book, ?Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge,? imagining a sentient termite queen delivering this address to her colony:

?Ever since our ancestors, the macrotermitine termites, achieved ten-kilogram weight and larger brains during their rapid evolution through the late Tertiary Period, and learned to write with pheromonal script, termitic scholarship has elevated and refined ethical philosophy.

?It is now possible to express the imperatives of moral behavior with precision. These imperatives are self-evident and universal. They are the very essence of termitity. They include the love of darkness and of the deep, saprophytic, basidiomycetic penetralia of the soil; the centrality of colony life amidst the richness of war and trade with other colonies, the sanctity of the physiological caste system; and the evil of personal rights (the colony is ALL!); our deep love for the royal siblings allowed to reproduce; the joy of chemical song; the aesthetic pleasure and deep social satisfaction of eating feces from nestmates? anuses after the shedding of our skins; and the ecstasy of cannibalism and surrender of our own bodies when we are sick or injured (it is more blessed to be eaten than to eat).?

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