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According to Darwin, animals will survive if they possess traits that make them well adapted to their environments. It is most often the female that chooses which males are fit enough to pass their genes onto the next generation. But how does this theory apply to social insects that cannot reproduce? “Worker” and “soldier” termites are incapable of reproducing, and some termite colonies have millions of soldiers. What would happen to a termite colony if the queen and the king were both to die?

According to a University of Maryland evolutionary biologist, Barbara Thorne, evolution has probably favored sterile termites since sterile termites would have no incentive to kill their parents in order to take over the throne. This is one reason as to why social insects are the most successful animals on earth; the good of the colony seems more important than the satisfaction of an individual termite.

So what would happen if a queen and a king were both to die? Would the entire colony die out? Actually, the colony would still survive, and the reason why is pretty amazing. King and queen termites produce pheromones that suppress the development of the young termites sexual organs. This is all the more reason to believe that “order” takes precedence over individual concerns within a termite colony. This lack of gonadal development keeps the worker termites calm and not wishing for a place on the throne. However, when both the king and queen termites die, they naturally stop producing the pheromones that stunted the young termites sexual growth. Now the termites can grow sexual organs and compete for the throne. This study used dampwood termites, which are the most primitive termites on earth, so the researchers are not sure how well this termite behavior is demonstrated in other colonies of social insects.

Since there can be millions of sterile offspring, how do you think one termite offspring winds up as king or queen after the death of its parents?