As far as homeowners are concerned, termites are destructive and costly pests with no redeeming value whatsoever. This universal sentiment is understandable, as termite damage to houses cost homeowners billions of dollars per year in repair costs alone. Termite infestations can last years before being noticed by a homeowner, and once they are noticed, the destructive pests have likely already inflicted massive damage that, in some rare cases, may warrant an extensive renovation. Most US states are home to multiple termite species, but only one species, the eastern subterranean termite, is found within the state of Massachusetts. Considering the rate at which these economically significant pests inflict damage upon homes, researchers have long wondered how termites cooperate in order to establish infestations.

Not long ago, researchers studied the intracolony social behavior of eastern subterranean termites. A termite colony is one large superorganism, and the royal pair could be considered this superorganism’s brain, as they are responsible for facilitating colony activity via pheromones. Queen termites release pheromones that prevent worker termites from developing reproductive organs. When it comes time to establish new colonies, queens cease the production of this sex pheromone, allowing workers to develop into reproductive swarmers (alates). Therefore, it is the queen termite that facilitates the dispersal of eastern subterranean termite colonies into new regions. However, multiple studies have shown that foraging behavior is initiated by workers without any pheromone input from the royal pair.

Once a new food source is detected, such as a timber-framed house, workers secrete pheromones that recruit soldiers for their defense before leaving the nest, as foraging in unexplored territories puts workers at risk of falling victim to predators. While foraging, workers and accompanying soldiers communicate via specific pheromones in order to reach a food source as safely as possible. Once a worker locates a house that a colony can feed upon, that worker directs all other workers to the house by secreting a “trail-following pheromone.” So while a termite colony’s queen is responsible for the spread of termites into new territories, worker termites are the culprits behind structural infestations.

Do you think that more advanced, or “higher,” termite species that build large mounds communicate in much the same way as subterranean termites in North America?