We’ve all seen examples of sociality in the animal kingdom, from cow herds, to wolf packs and flocks of birds. However, none of these social structures can compare to the complexity of a termite nest or bee hive. These insects are able to construct giant colonies with no plans, no management, and no top-down coordination.
As it turns out, termite workers are like tiny robots that will perform the same tasks over and over without any thought about how or why they are performing the tasks. A certain behavior will be triggered by an external stimulus, such as a change in light or odor. These stimuli will trigger different behaviors, such as beginning an activity in a certain location, adding new tunnels to food sources, or expanding the current nest.
What’s interesting is how termite workers coordinate when building new tunnels. Different species will have different tunneling behaviors. In one species, the workers will form a line and then the first worker will take a bit of dirt and pass it to the worker behind it by kicking it back, and the second worker will do the same, in a form of chain behavior. In other species, individual workers will take the dirt and walk it out of the tunnel to throw it or stack it away themselves.
So why is there this distinction in tunneling behavior? Researchers noticed that the termites that used dirt-kicking to dig tunnels were smaller than the termites which carried out the little pieces of dirt individually, so they looked at reproductives, which are bigger than workers, to see if they adhered to the “size” hypothesis. However, they did not. Large reproductives would use the dirt-kicking technique as the workers despite their larger size.
A new hypothesis arised. The two different tunneling behaviors evolved at different times, which goes back to a shared ancestor, where the kicking behavior branched off in the evolutionary tree. Researchers hope that through further study, they will be able to understand how social behavior in social insects evolved.
As we can see, termites have a wide range of tools and methods at their disposal in order to create a colony, and different species will have different optimal behaviors. This is why these insects are so effective at destroying a home, and why they should be removed as soon as they are detected. Contact us today if you have a termite infestation or if you would like us to perform a termite inspection.