Environmental Almanac | Termites are more than just pests


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On Saturday, the 36th annual Insect Fear Film Festival will take place in Foellinger Auditorium on the University of Illinois campus. As part of the celebration, this week's column is a collaborative piece by two graduate students from the Department of Entomology, Jonathan Tetlie and Scott Clem.

The theme for this year's festival is "Termites!" In the wonderfully awful feature film "Alien Apocalypse" (2005), astronaut doctor Ivan Hood (Bruce Campbell) and fellow astronaut Kelly (Renée O'Connor) return from a 40-year mission in space only to find the world invaded by alien termites that enslave humans as they pillage the Earth of its wood.

Despite the sadistic portrayal of these insects in the film, termites are truly fascinating. They are classified as exhibiting the highest level of sociality, termed eusociality, in which individuals cooperate as a group and exhibit a caste system consisting of workers, soldiers and reproductives (queens and kings). Workers are responsible for feeding the other castes, and soldiers use their huge elongated heads and massive jaws to forage for wood and defend the colony.

In some species, old workers become kamikazes and will explode, releasing deadly chemicals onto rivals.

Finally, reproductives are important for starting new colonies. They emerge in massive winged swarms (termed nuptial flights), where virgin queens mate with short-lived kings, and disperse to find new colonies.

Termite colonies can become massive. In Brazil, a super-colony estimated to be nearly 4,000 years old and consisting of nearly 200 million mounds covers an area the size of Great Britain and is visible from space! Some of these mounds are over 10 feet tall.

Termites are also fascinating at the microscopic level. They host an entire community of specialized, symbiotic micro-organisms that break down unpalatable cellulose into simpler digestible molecules.

Most people solely associate termites as being wood-eating pests that destroy homes and wreak havoc on wooden structures. The eastern subterranean termite (Reticulitermes flavipes), for example, is notorious for causing an inordinate amount of damage throughout much of the United States. However, with over 3,100 species described throughout the world, only a select few of these insects are granted this infamous reputation, while all provide vital ecosystem services.

Termites are essential decomposers of wood and other cellulose materials, and they are a major food source for a variety of organisms — including humans!

In a number of cultures, termites are collected during nuptial flights, clipped of their wings, and either roasted or fried. They are known to possess a delicious nut-like flavor and are rich in both fat and protein. Because their nutrient density and ability to convert inedible waste into consumable products, termites have been proposed as a potential sustainable source of food in space.

Termites have been associated with numerous bio-inspired design projects. Modern buildings have begun to incorporate passive cooling inspired by termite nest design.

The Eastgate Centre in Zimbabwe, for example, has incorporated this system and is incredibly energy efficient, using only 10 percent of what is required by a comparable, conventional building.

Why did termites incorporate temperature control elements in the first place? Certain species of termites grow fungal farms in their nests as a source of nutritious and digestible food. However, this creates a problem because the fungi require a specific temperature in order to survive. Termites solve this by creating a vast array of heating and cooling vents which can be manipulated to regulate airflow and temperature.

Not convinced that termites are more than just pests that destroy the foundation of your home?

Stop by the Insect Fear Film Festival on Saturday to learn more about these amazing creatures. Doors open at 6 p.m. for exhibits and activities, including exotic insect displays from around the world, an insect petting zoo, balloon insects, face painting and insect art.

Specific to the theme of this year's film festival, there will be termite exhibitions, including exotic termite displays, termite puppets and live termites you can manipulate using pheromones.

An introduction by Entomology Department Chair May Berenbaum will be given at 7, followed by animated shorts and our feature film. Admission is free. For more information, visit IFFF on Facebook (facebook.com/IFFFatUofI) or the graduate student website (publish.illinois.edu/uiuc-egsa/).

Rob Kanter is a clinical associate professor with the UI School of Earth, Society and Environment. You can reach him via email at rkanter@illinois.edu.