At least half of termite studies used to be about how to kill them. But science is discovering their extraordinary usefulness Read the text version here
United Kingdom


00:00:00before you pull up a chair and settle down for this guardian audio along great why not check out our sponsors squarespace if you're launching a podcast creating a blog or building a business then squarespace gives you all the tools you need to create your own site get started
00:00:16by heading to squarespace dot com forward slash guardian for your free trial and using offer code guardian to save ten percent off your first purchase of a website or domain now on with the podcast welcome to the guardian long read showcasing the best long form journalism covering culture
00:00:37politics and you thinking for the text version of this and allow long we'd sketch the guardian dot com forward slash a giant cooling breaking the jaw dropping world of ten nights at least half of termites studies used to be about how to kill them but science is discovering
00:00:56their extraordinary usefulness by Lisa McNally in July two thousand and eight I rented a small yellow car in Tucson Arizona and I drive it south towards tombstone my passengers included an entomologist and two microbial geneticists and I was following a white van with government plates carrying nine more
00:01:20geneticists we also had five hundred plastic bags a vacuum flask of dry ice and three hundred and fifty cryogenic vials each the size and shape of the pencil stop we had two days to get ten thousand termites the goal was to sequence the genes of the microbes and
00:01:42that got because termites a famously good at heating would those jeans were attractive to government labs trying to turn would and cross into bio fuels quest setting the white van and the geneticists %HESITATION belong to the US department of energy joint genome institute perhaps by saying exactly how
00:02:03termites breakdown would we'd be able to do it too we stopped in the Coronado National Forest near the border with Mexico I lifted a rock and sore a glint of glossy exoskeleton flowing into some little tunnels I dropped to my knees and began sucking on a spray to
00:02:24a disgusting process that stimulated saliva production made me dizzy two minutes later there were no more time nights on the ground and I had about twenty five in the test tube attached to the aspirate to but my pale termites were disappointing when I separated one from the clutch
00:02:43it was less substantial than a baby's fingernail clipping don't during around blindly waved the flimsy antenna I on its bulbous head in its stubby translucent body I could only see it's coiled guts and presumably whatever city ten for lunch have snazzy bodies with three sections highlighted by narrow
00:03:04wastes like a pinup models between the segments termites which in no relation to %HESITATION so bees have round eyeless heads the necks and teardrop shaped bodies I'm a long ago lost cockroaches repulsive dignity not a size and gleaming Chechen Asama I put the ten night back in the
00:03:27test tube what had I just sucked up my little gang of twenty five was incapable of doing much of anything without a colony they had no way to bring food too and thus no reason to forage without a crowd of soldiers they couldn't defend themselves without a queen
00:03:45they couldn't reproduce twenty five ten might sell insignificant in the scheme of life and death and reproduction meaningless what smoke they were clinging to one another making an icky beige rape of termite heads bodies and legs reminiscent of the game barrel of monkeys in the minute just scrum
00:04:05I couldn't even see a single termite they look like a clot not a group of individuals or perhaps I had found a single individual who happened to have twenty five selves I had stumbled into one of the big questions termites pays which is roughly what he's one termite
00:04:25is it one time night with that symbiotic got to my craves an entity that can eat would but cannot reproduce on at ten or is it colony holy living breathing structure occupied by a few million related individuals and a gazillion sim buyouts who collectively constitute one the issue
00:04:46of one is profound in every direction with yvolution may ecological and existential implications by the end of the day I had a basic idea that the few on my soul the motel might that might be where I had thought of landscapes as a product of growth on that
00:05:04tough to name then vested to become the opposite the remainders left behind by the forces of persistent a massive chewing this guy was no longer the sky but the blue stuff that is visible after the screening brushing cacti have been eaten away termites have made the world by
00:05:23on making parts of it they are the architects of negative space the engineers of note nobody laughs termites even though other social insects such as ants and bees are admired for their organization thrift and industry parents stressed that children can be costumes star in movies and video games
00:05:46but termites and never more than crude cartoons on the side of exterminators bans ten might studies are likewise a backwater funded mostly by government agencies and companies with names such as ten X. between two thousand and twenty thirteen six thousand three hundred and seventy three papers about termites
00:06:06were published forty nine percent but about how to kill them every story about ten nights mentions that they consume somewhere between one point five billion dollars one point one billion pounds and twenty billion dollars in U. S. property every year termites offense is often described as the eating
00:06:27of private property which makes them sound like anti capitalist anarchists well termites are truly subversive it's fast point out that they will eat anything pulpy they find money itself to be very tasty in twenty eleven they broke into an Indian bank can date ten million rupees than one
00:06:46hundred thirty seven thousand pounds in bank makes in twenty thirteen they eight four hundred thousand you one than forty five thousand pounds that a woman England Dolan had wrapped in plastic and hidden in a wooden droll another statistic seems relevant termites outweigh S. ten to one for every
00:07:09sixty kilogram human you according to the time I text but David big no there is six hundred kilograms of then we may live in our own self titled the park the anthropocene but ten might run the debt they are under appreciated under loads he plays in a vast
00:07:30planet tree conspiracy of disassembly and decay if termites and ants and bees were to go on strike the tropics pyramid of independence would collapse into infertility wells most important rivers would sell top and the oceans would become toxic game over by the end of our termite collecting trip
00:07:52we had eight thousand termites in plastic tubs and bags but they needed to be labeled and stored in dry ice before going to California to be sequenced once frozen in the vacuum flask the termites were on their way to immortality a collection of genetic code sitting in some
00:08:10database on the server somewhere intellectual property the sequence of nucleotides that might solve a wicked problems some day we were on the border between natural history and an unnatural feature we want to lay in all over the world scientists trying to find biology underlying rules and put them
00:08:31to use that doing it with jeans behaviors metabolisms and ecosystems this scene nature in new ways and at the same time the trying to reinvent it and put it to work for us in the future we will harness nature's tiniest life forms microbes and insects both the systems
00:08:52of organization and control and the jeans and chemical capabilities this fits with a paradoxical designed to have a light to foot print on the F. while having greater control over its processes at the core of this project is the provocative dream of changing biology into a predictive science
00:09:14much the way physics started is the observation of phenomena such as gravity and then became the science of making plans for the atom bomb will that be termite bones ten nights I came to understand the post a bug for the twenty first century a little guide to really
00:09:32big ideas termite colonies begin theatrically on rainy evenings hello hi am is a pain in the sides of the existing termite Haynes I'm largish winged termites emerge shake out the sticky wings and fly in northern California termites the Janice particular Tammy's suddenly appear on the sides of buildings
00:09:56they inhabit in South America nice you to Tammy's shower down from the nests in the trees in New Orleans Formosan termites of the Janice Cocteau Tammy's back up from colonies in the ground and take to the air in swarms so dense they show up on whether rada in
00:10:15the media giant not pretend these mounds seem to spring a leak spinning thrusts of wind termites down this site's in the mound most of the ten nights eyeless and wingless but the first child time it to leave the mount on this night have highs and lows at first
00:10:35appears to be one single translucent teardrop shaped wing when they are ready to fly the single wing still soft and moist finds out into full cold anatase these termites alike fragile balsa wood glider planes just study enough to cruise briefly before crash landing that pay loads of genes
00:11:00male and female find each other and scuttle off to dig a bar a wet able mate at first the two ten nights will be alone in the dark coal Christina let Pat CO Evans a Michael lens have written that ten might parents bite off the ends of their
00:11:17on ten nine which may make them better at raising their young antenna I give termites lots of sensory information I'm biting off the segments towards the end could reduce that stimulation making it easier to live in a tiny borrow with a few million children how often she is
00:11:35late have first stakes the queen cleans them often to remove harmful fun guy until they hatch isn't in about three weeks later and then this will melt grow and develop but under the influence of the queen's firemen most of them went fully mature remaining permanent stay at home
00:11:54preteens eyeless wingless helpers males and females alike will spend that time gathering food tending eggs building the nest deeper into the ground and eventually tending a fungus as the family grows bigger some more often to soldiers their heads grow larger doc college and hard in a distinctive way
00:12:17depending on the species they're off that they must be fed by their siblings the workers soldiers appear to return the favor by dancing the colony with antimicrobial secretions that help it resist disease over time in the small smooth Dutch room where she lives the queen's body becomes physically
00:12:38gastric her abdomen swelling to the size of my thumb constricted by talked black bands remaining from how old exoskeleton so she looks like a soft sausage that is being callously bound with string head thorax and legs remain tiny immobilized except for the ability to waive her legs and
00:13:00bubble head she lays eggs at the rate of one every three seconds will say the king's days by her her children lake off the liquid that appears on her skin feed her and care for the aches or at least that's life for some micro ten these queens the
00:13:19Janice found in Africa and Southeast Asia that builds its mound around a massive fungus there are however at least three thousand named termite species and that's at least three thousand ways to be termites some have multiple queens some have claimed kings or queens summer in probably founded by
00:13:40two male termites one species doesn't really have workers different species the word others eat grass and some meat debt micro Tammy's tender fungus but most others do not %HESITATION termites they live in their own version of a big coming the south African writer you Jane my ray spent
00:14:04many years peering into that man's and wrote the soul of the white and originally published in English in nineteen thirty seven the ray called the termite mound a composite animal uniting the millions of sterile workers the soldiers the fact queen and the king with the debt structure of
00:14:23the mound itself into a single body you will need to learn a new alphabet he warned his readers before leading them in the hard packed dirt on the outside of the Mountie said is the skin constructed by termites which builds passageways inside that allowed amount to breeze like
00:14:42a long the organism stomach is this symbiotic fungus that sits in catacombs under the mound digesting grosses delivered by termites the man's mouth can be found in the hundreds of foraging tunnels the termites construct through the surrounding landscape because they carry nutrients and rebuild the mound the sterile
00:15:05workers resemble blood cells the mounds immune system is the soldiers who rushed to defend the space whenever it is invaded to moderate the queen was no Victoria but instead a captive in Philly Wold into a chain but no bigger than has swollen sweating body my ray imagined that
00:15:25eventually the mound will develop into a being that could move across the felt very slowly and it's dead skin amongst a hybrid of soil and sold marries insight wasn't original and many scientists have taken to calling such social arrangements of termites bees and ants super organisms the originator
00:15:48of the time was the entomologist William we let the founder of the study of ants in the US %HESITATION throughout the nineteen eleven article called the ant colony as an organism first time super organisms were all the rage the concept delta neatly with what Charles Darwin had called
00:16:09the problem with social insects Darwin's theory of evolution proposed that natural selection worked on individuals and the fittest individuals bread with others similarly fit to that ecological niche well the less fit were less likely to reproduce the problem with social insects was that while single termites seem to
00:16:33be individuals they do not function as such only the queen and king of a colony breed so who was the individual by declaring the whole colony the individual we list said its members made up a living a whole bent on preserving it's moving equity brand and its integrity
00:16:54this is the audio long rate and will continue the story after this Amazon prime videos the Romanovs is a new original series from the creators of mad men each globe spanning stories about one shared royal bloodline the Roman of stars Diane lane Christina Hendricks Aaron Eckhart John Slattery
00:17:20Amanda Peet and Paul Reiser with the new episodes every Friday premiering October twelfth only on Amazon prime video we hope you're enjoying this long great if you need a website that also last the distance then check out square space it gives you all the tools you need to
00:17:43create your own website whether you're publishing a blog launching a podcast or running an online business get started by heading to squarespace dot com forward slash guardian for your free trial and using offer code guardian to save ten percent off your first purchase in the late nineteen twenties
00:18:02and early thirties the paradigm at the super organism group colossal instead of studying individual trees biologists studied forests as super organisms by nineteen thirty one the concepts knock into popular culture when Aldous Huxley reportedly based the dictatorship in Brave New World on humans as social insects with five
00:18:26costs we let proposed that trough Alexis I would him vented for the way insects regurgitating chef food among themselves was the secret sauce the super glue of societies both insect and human and the foundation of economics but even during the Super organisms heyday Marie was alone in his
00:18:49assertion that the mound how to so yep I went to meet Jay Scott Turner an American biologist who spent decades studying how and why termites build them mountains it took ten to years of experiments to show that mounts could work a bit my lungs with into connected chambers
00:19:11taking advantage of fluctuations in wind speed and moves back and forth through the poorest debt skin of the mound by two systems in big payoffs driven by buoyant gases rising from the hot fungus nest like the shop intake of breath from the diaphragm and in small puffs the
00:19:31way and we easily diffuses between alveoli in your lungs ten a suspected that the termites themselves circulated air as they moved like mu bile LVAD this insight was entirely new way of thinking about the problem the man was not a simple structure away at happen to move the
00:19:54sea continuously morphing complex contraption consisting of debt and termites together manipulating Affleck termites he spent a year at building an average amount of three meters have just built in comparison to that size them prostate building they used to build toward amounts at nearly five meters have just built
00:20:16the Burj Khalifa in Dubai eight hundred thirty meters and one hundred sixty three floors of that ticket with no architect and no structural engineer such I'm thinking seat of the pants design is not possible for humans he required squads of professionals advanced equipment and seven thousand five hundred
00:20:35people working for six years to build the badge Khalifa working with Turner engineer Rupert soul hope to harness the powerful constructive groups think that comes from the tiny amounts of termites and they even tinier brains to build structures in remote environment such as Mona's but there were issues
00:20:57termites he said engineer to the point of collapse one morning at J. C. B. arrived antenna directed it to amend the J. Seabees great played came down on the top of the mound with the holiday with the first note of a funny little come set how often and
00:21:16fell away with that tumbling clinking clatter as the shots hit different layers of killed Mont they played a tune like a soft designed a fan we pushed in close enveloped by the familiar smell of socks and bread what was left of the mount was a ruined hierarchy debt
00:21:34shots and fungus canes and sculpted mod planked down would well termites run every which way at first as a sort of goal was the net soon they had organized themselves into small streams and within ten minutes those streams had consolidated into rivers of running in sex as order
00:21:54was restored I could see the elaborate scheme of tunnels rooms chambers and fungus hidden under the debt exterior spectacle was genuinely %HESITATION some as in Georgia paying and the polling the top of the mound was hollow with wide vertical tunnels the interiors of these tunnels with very smooth
00:22:16and they sank weighed in and out of each other in red P. vertiginous columns like a sloppy braid termites make the mounds by first piling up debt and then removing it strategically in the tunnels eyeless they use their own ten night to fill for small business and in
00:22:34the big tunnels they remove everything that is rough they may even hear the tunnel shape termites are often had to architects for the way they build them mountains but that is misleading because they don't have plans over a global vision what they really have is an aesthetic and
00:22:54in a sense of how things should feel when the top of the spire was first ripped off there with just a few termites in the solitude tunnels at the top probably listening to the cropping of their end six feet but cutting into the top allowed in lots of
00:23:10fresh air at once an activated an alarm system some ten nights ran away from the hole agitating that brothers and sisters said they could help with the pain as thousands of work at ten nights followed the smell of fresh had to find the whole carrying bowls of debt
00:23:26in the miles within minutes of the JCB strike streams of termites Candace the broken side of the mound moving in a frantic stop stop Patton like a shaky old animated cartoon I leaned in further and could see that each term might put its board of debt down on
00:23:44the boulder left by the previous time might we killed his or her head perhaps to get the ball to stick and then backed away weather with two bowls that was ten twenty and then two hundred ten two thousand some of the stacks joined up with other stacks of
00:24:00the perimeter of the breaks in the mound to form a little bumpy for labels once the area was walled off the signal from the fresh I would stop and the termites would fill the internal space with more debt bowls and small tunnels making a social spongy layer later
00:24:19they would either block it off entirely or would holiday towns and remodel it the J. C. B. came back in for another swipe taking away the debt below the mound to reveal the system of horizontal galleries tunnels and chambers with termites live it reminded me of those diagrams
00:24:37of cruise ships visualized from the side with small rooms packed together in a strict hierarchy of function and status from bull rooms and cafeterias to V. I. P. staterooms and steerage banks the colonies hierarchy is not money of course but the things that enable it survival reproduction childcare
00:24:58food supply and food processing some rooms a large with vaulted ceilings and walls and floors the texture of tortilla chips when I looked closely I could see that they were not so much rooms as places when many foraging tunnels crossed like the grand concourse is of %HESITATION train
00:25:18stations deep within this area was a small caps you with the king and queen lived making eggs which were carried to nearby nurseries hello the mound lives the fungus digesting grouse %HESITATION ten nights you symbiotic collectives of bacteria and other microbes to digest cellulose pull them but my
00:25:42car Tammy's outsource the major work to a fungus in some senses the fungus functions as a stomach but it also has power reminiscent of the wizard of oz under the mound and around the nest sit hundreds of little rooms each containing fungus **** this comb is made of
00:26:03millions of miles fulls of chewed dry gross excreted as you Dave feces and carefully assembled into a maze the Kumbh roughly resembles a Graham cracker Pinecrest although it varies in color from delicious page to decrepit black the ten mice inoculated with a fungus that they've been cohabiting with
00:26:24for more than thirty million years you can pull the fungus came out of the locker rooms as if you were pulling draws from adults will drive the cutting maze wiggles like the folds of the brain with the hard Brinkley piles of chewed cross making the joinery and leaving
00:26:42the Celsius gaps in between this is not an accident us with the brain the cutting design increases the surface area of the structure within the gaps of what looked like tiny white balloons which is the fungus blooming there is nothing accidental about this relationship by either or the
00:27:02construction holds it the details the said fine we can barely take them in the bottom of the fungus came stand some paid like legs little not bins that hold it up just enough to let S. circulate through one of the grad students be to small stake against the
00:27:20floors of the fungus galleries playing something that was almost eighteen the symbiotic relationship between marker Tammy's and the fungus is tight workers scour the landscape for dry across quickly run it through that got then place and inoculate each bowl to suit the fungus is picky temperament tends the
00:27:41comb and snowfall the fungus and it should because before distributing the goodies to the rest of the family then the workers run off together more grass for the fungus termites and to my to my sis fungus a so interrelated that it's hard to tell where the mushroom ends
00:27:58and the termite picks up but within the co dependence is a source of frenemy tight rivalry fun guy a capable of deliberately tricking ten nights one invasive fungus and termite colonies in the US and Japan pretends to be a time I take going so far as to secrete
00:28:17the chemical lysozyme which the termites used to recognize that rakes for reasons that are not clear colonies filled within pasta eggs under less healthy than those without them prejudice by our human sense of a hierarchy of the animate time might say that inanimate mushrooms we would be inclined
00:28:38to believe that the termites control the fungus but the fungus is much larger than the termites both in size and energy production ten estimates that its metabolism is about eight times bigger than that of the termites in the mount I like to tell people that this is not
00:28:56a termite built structure it's a fungus built structure he says chuckling it is possible that the fungus has kidnapped the termites it's even possible that the fungus is perhaps a template of chemical smells that stimulates the termites to build the mound itself as I peered at the white
00:29:16no Jews I began to sneeze violently sometimes with big gossiping whoops and something it's hard to even chorus at the wood but a possible of one fifty three my sub conscious before flying out of my name's the fungus is very powerful my admiration for the fungus any grew
00:29:35when I learned that Namibian FAMAS estimate that every macro Tammy's Maryland which contains just five kilograms of termites eats as much dead grass as a four hundred kilogram cal late in the day one of the scientists used a pickaxe to pop the royal chamber out of the nest
00:29:55the whole complex was the size and shape of a squashed some couple but made of how much packed finely grained debt he cracked it open revealing the king and queen in a hollow space the size of a cough drop ten the chamber had holes on the sides allowing
00:30:13Aaron smaller ten nights to pass through the king was large and dark compared to the workers but the queen was huge as big as my finger my legs and upper body white gold but barely budged the fluid filled sac of a lower body which posted radically as though
00:30:32she was a toothpaste tube squeezed by an unseen hand skin was shiny and translucent and the fence inside has swirled like pearly cream dribbled into coffee everyone shouted the queen is viscerally repulsive she offends our sensibilities and she is not stress I think the first stimulus to shut
00:30:55that is a reflexive reaction to her body's pulses and swells then a more intellectual sense of horror kicks in she's not a queen she's a slave said you generate and it may be an entomologist working with ten no relation to the writer of the famous work content might
00:31:15captive of her body of her children of the structure of the mound she conspired to build even then the queen's more shocking aspects of hidden from us her truly stupendous fertility creating millions of eggs overzealous twenty years is something we can infer some species of termite queens can
00:31:37clone themselves by producing eggs with no entry waste the spam which they mature into sexual queens with any them mothers chromosomes duplicated inside the egg nucleus to furnish a full set in perfect copies of the queen these knockoffs a good enough to get the job done pathogenesis allows
00:31:59the queen to live in insect is pretty close to for Alfa and yet we do referred to her as the queen I wondered why Murray said that when early European naturalists looked into bee hives and termite mounds they saw the money because they came from with workers soldiers
00:32:19and kings and queens it was misleading he said and kept us from really understanding what was going on with tonight's for scientists the great danger of seeing social insects anthropomorphic plea is it to type skill is that true insect in this in the nineteen seventies and eighties when
00:32:38the scientist Deborah Gordon began studying massive ant colonies in the American southwest scientists describe the ant colony as a factory with assembly line workers each performing a single task eva and eva Gordon felt the factory model clouded what she actually saw and her colonies a tremendous variation in
00:32:59the tasks that ants would doing rather than having intrinsic Tosk assignments she saw that ants change that behavior based on clues they got from the environment and one another Golden suggested that we should stop thinking events as factory workers and instead think of them as the firing patterns
00:33:17of New Orleans in the brain was simple environmental information gives cues that make the individual's work for the whole without central regulation and so these days one scientific metaphor for the inscrutable termite is a new around in a giant calling brain back in the nineteen thirties the other
00:33:40Mareh didn't right termite science book but a book about how humans could understand ten heights as a bug ability sold for someone and skate looking at termites this way changed how I see the world science the future and myself the mole guardian long remains in text on a
00:34:06selection in order to go to the guardian dot com forward slash long read %HESITATION find us on soundcloud soundcloud forward slash the guardian on me great costs from the guardian just go to the guillotine dot com slash put

Transcribed by algorithms. Report Errata
Disclaimer: The podcast and artwork embedded on this page are from The Guardian, which is the property of its owner and not affiliated with or endorsed by Listen Notes, Inc.


Thank you for helping to keep the podcast database up to date.