Humans And Termites: Can We Replicate Their Success?

Termites are known for their less-than-charming characteristics (and their ability to instantly inspire a phone call to the exterminators): they cause millions of dollars in damage each year, they’re incredibly hardy, and they multiply at unbelievable rates (the queen lays approximately 30,000 eggs every day). However, they are quite remarkable as a species if you consider other aspects of their nature, such as their “swarm intelligence”, profound ability to turn grass into energy, and their capability of creating vast, intricate structures wildly outside of their own size range. So, do your best to lay off on calling the exterminators until after you’ve read this piece!

An article in the New Yorker detailed some of these aspects. The author describes them as “hard to love, but…easy to admire” — she is directly referencing their ability to create termite mounds, which are among the largest structures ever created by nonhuman animals.

“They reach as high as thirty feet, which, proportional to the insects’ tiny size, is the equivalent of our building something twice as tall as the 2,722-foot Burj Khalifa, in Dubai.”

Additionally, the pesky pests have a unique ability (thanks to the thousands of microbes living in their bellies) to convert dead plant matter into energy. According to the Department of Energy, the U.S. produces around 1.3 billion tons of dry biomass (made of dead plant matter) every year, and without taking anything away from what’s used for agricultural purposes. If we could harness the secret of termite digestion, that biomass could be turned into nearly 100 billion gallons of biofuel (sometimes known as “grassoline”) every year — that would be able to reduce the number of vehicle emissions by approximately 86%!

When it comes to the intelligence of the colony as a whole, science described it as “stigmergy” : the idea is that a trace left behind in the environment by one agent triggers further action by other agents, creating a positive feedback loop, basically explaining why extremely simple creatures seem to perform joint-decision making — like in the crafting of a termite mound. Researchers believe that stigmergy may be the secret to understanding and creating artificial intelligence, something which humanity has already begun taking steps toward.

We know this information won’t stop you from calling your nearest pest control services, demanding they send their best exterminators to eliminate pests you discovered in your basement (and nor should it), but maybe you’ll be able to look at them in a new light — as creatures who do exceptionally well for themselves despite the havoc they wreak on human life.