Love them or hate them, and most of us hate them, termites are some of the most resilient and interesting insects in the world. Especially when it comes to warfare.
The defensive front
Humans have been waging biological warfare against termites for over half a century, with fluctuating effectiveness. This is because termites will use their feces as a form of antibiotic. Not only that, but despite the efforts of 125 research teams from over 35 countries in the span of 50 years, there is still no effective way to control the pests in environmentally friendly ways. Over the years, scientists have tried a wide variety of bacteria and fungi to control termites, but they have failed repeatedly. This is because termites will actively evolve defense mechanisms that will protect them.
In order to better understand these mechanisms, researchers looked at the Formosan subterranean termite, which is the species responsible for most of the economic damage inflicted by these pests. Consequently, they are also one of the species most subjected to extermination efforts.
Formosan termites will build large underground nests that can house up to 1 million termites, and the passageways they use to find wood can extend up to 500 feet. In order to create all the building material needed for these structures, the termite will use a mix made out of chewed up wood particles and feces, and it will also use its feces to line the tunnels of the nest. Scientists believed that the feces will serve as a fertile ground for beneficial microbes.
When analyzing the material collected from five colonies of Formosan termites in Florida, researchers found that 70% of the bacteria collected from the material were useful in combating a variety of fungi and detrimental bacteria. When placed in an artificial nest seeded with hostile fungi, the termites were most likely to survive if they were also given the bacteria that was most commonly found in their colonies.
On the offense
One of the interesting offensive capabilities that a particular tropical termite, the Neocapritermes taracua, has is the ability for its workers to go on suicide missions. This species has two types of workers, blue and white. The blue workers are older, and thus less effective at working, but they have two blue crystals on their backs that contain protein which explode when combined with the secretions of the salivary glands. The toxic goo from the explosion will spray and paralyze or kill the workers from their rival species, the Labiotermes labralis.
The white workers also have this capacity, but the toxin is less potent, and the workers themselves are less aggressive and less willing to jump into the fray. So not only do these termites have chemical warfare capabilities, they also use tactics and strategies in combat that maintain the effectiveness of the overall colony. Furthermore, the two crystals on their backs are actually carried outside the body, which makes the whole system even more exceptional.