Termites are remarkable creatures for several reasons. For one thing, termites are one of the few animal groups that have the ability to digest the fibers that constitute the hard cell walls of plants. This material is called “cellulose,” and most termite species, especially lower termites, prefer wood as their main source of cellulose. All termite species in the United States are classified as lower termites; that is, they belong to the least evolutionarily advanced group of termites that exist. More evolved termites, or “higher” termites, are capable of remarkable feats, such as constructing intricate and climate-controlled nesting mounds, some of which reach a height of more than 30 feet. And many higher termite species evolved to farm fungus as their primary food source.
In countries like Africa, higher termite species cultivate their fungal crops within climate controlled nesting mounds. These nesting mounds contain numerous compartments, some of which are dedicated to rearing offspring and housing reproductive winged termites (alates). All termite mounds contain a royal chamber that houses the queen and king. Although the queen largely dictates colony behavior by transmitting messenger pheromones to workers, the life of a queen termite is not as glamorous and privileged as it sounds. For example, a queen can produce up to 30,000 eggs per day, making her perpetually pregnant. Due to carrying a high amount of eggs, the queen’s abdomen is constantly distended, rendering her immobile for life. Considering the queen’s seemingly unfortunate condition, her personal compartment within a mound seems less like a royal chamber and more like a prison cell. Even if the queen’s perpetual pregnancy did not render her immobile, she would still be unable to exit her “royal chamber,” as the eggs she carries massively increases her body size to the point where she can no longer fit through the chamber’s exit.
During a queen’s long life, she is almost always accompanied by a king that maintains her morbidly pregnant condition. To add insult to injury, once the queen becomes a burden to the mound, or outlives her usefulness in any way, her worker offspring lick her to death, as her body is exceptionally nutritious. Due to the manner in which a queen termite is treated, one termite expert, Lisa Margonelli, has suggested that a queen termite may be more of a slave than a ruler. But at least she is cleaned, groomed and fed by her worker offspring throughout her life. In any case, some experts believe the term “queen” is misleading when it comes to understanding the nature and functioning of termite colonies.
Do you believe that the king termite may also be responsible for facilitating mound construction by emitting his own pheromone messenger signals?