Coneheads, egg stacks and anteater attacks: The reign of a termite queen

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Take a look inside the conehead termite colony as a queen begins her reign as one of the longest living insects in the animal kingdom.

A single determined termite braves countless threats to participate in the only flight of her lifetime. She evades the onslaught of predators as she lands, flips off her wings, secretes pheromones, and attracts a mate. But she’s not alone. Unlike most termite species, conehead termite colonies can have multiple queens and kings. Barbara L. Thorne details the reign and duties of termite royalty.

Tens of thousands of conehead termites are swarming in the Panamanian air. These 4 young hopefuls are brave— oh… I guess 3. Oh, wow, 2 in 1. Okay!

This single determined termite is braving countless threats to participate in the only flight of her lifetime. She evades the onslaught of predators even as she lands, flips off her wings, secretes pheromones, and attracts a mate. The pair dash from the danger zone into a rotting tree stump. It’s the perfect first home- but they’re not alone. Unlike most termite species, conehead termite colonies can have multiple queens and kings. The pair is joined by several other termites ready to reproduce.

Together, they excavate a chamber in the stump, seal the entrance and get busy. When the resulting offspring hatch, they bear little resemblance to their parents; they’re smaller, wingless, eyeless, and sterile. Some of them, the soldiers, have the species’ trademark conspicuously shaped heads— the function of which will soon be revealed.

They set out to scout for dead wood, laying the pheromone trails the rest of the offspring, the colony’s workers, follow and reinforce as they retrieve food. As the termites collect and decompose plant debris, they return essential nutrients to the soil, allowing more vegetation to thrive. Gradually, worker termites expand the colony’s central chamber as they groom and feed the royals and the upcoming broods.

The tiniest termites can’t yet eat wood independently. So, the workers process it and gift it to the youngsters through their saliva and by basically throwing up into their mouths. With the workers managing groceries, construction, and child care, the royals fully commit themselves to reproduction. The kings provide sperm on an as-needed basis, and the queens undergo radical transformations.

Their abdomens develop efficient egg-laying machinery and extend dramatically. Each queen may produce hundreds of eggs a day. Meanwhile, a worker entourage retrieves and neatly stacks them into piles. The colony grows quickly. And once its population is big enough, workers construct a system of tunnels stretching over 100 meters across terrain, along fallen logs, and up into tree crowns. These tunnels shelter the termites as they travel to and from food sites around the clock. And eventually, they build a distinctive central nest. Using partially digested plant material, soil, and poop, they construct a massive egg-shaped structure, complete with numerous passages, chambers, and ventilation holes.

Deep within, they establish a royal cell that’s fortified with extra thick walls. It’s not long before this architectural marvel attracts an admirer: an anteater. She swipes at the nest and pokes her long tongue in. Those trapped in the tongue’s spines and sticky saliva are whisked off to their deaths. But the termite soldiers launch a counterattack.

They’re tiny and blind but their heads function like squirt guns. They secure the anteater’s position using chemical signals, clench their powerful muscles and shoot a sticky spray from their heads. After a minute, the anteater stops feeding, scratches the goo away, and lopes off. The nest sustained some damage, but the royals remain undisturbed, pumping out eggs into their reinforced fortress. As the colony matures, some of the young develop into reproductives.

Most fly off to establish new colonies— one lands on a fallen tree, another scrambles into a crack in a house, and another climbs into a shipping crate. But some will simply saunter to sites nearby and become the monarchs of the colony’s satellite nests. With one of the longest insect lifespans, a termite queen’s reign can last more than 20 years. The original queens and kings eventually die, but by the time they go, several satellite nests are already thriving. Their reproductive offspring inherit the throne, meaning that their colony may persist for decades to come.

Lesson by Barbara L. Thorne, directed by Thomas Johnson Volda.

 

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