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Termites and Retirement
Sep 1, 2013

We call termites “white ants” because of their appearance; however they are a diverse group of insects, with around 3,000 species. Found mostly in Africa, termites feed especially on wood and other organic substances in tropical and subtropical regions.

Termites are 1-2 cm in size, but they live in mud towers that can grow to five meters tall. The scale, between termite and tower, is comparable to that between a human and a skyscraper. When their life style, which seems chaotic from the outside, is investigated, one finds that termites maintain social lives within perfect urban communities. These wondrous mini cities feature air conditioning and ventilation systems, in addition to a queen chamber, and rooms for incubation and juveniles.

An instinctual sense of solidarity that has been ingrained among living organisms also plays an important role among termites. They display an amazing form of cooperation in matters like foraging and defense. As termites live in colonies, they follow a particular arrangement of duties. The queen is in charge of new generations; workers meet the nest’s needs, and soldiers are responsible for its defense. When necessary, workers also participate in defensive tasks. One of the termite’s defense mechanisms, which amazed scientists, was recently discovered in June 2012.

Jan Sobotnik, with the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, and Thomas Bourguignon, of Université Libre de Bruxelles at French Guiana, discovered an unseen feature of the termite species Neocapritermes taracua. The workers of this species are, in a sense, enlisted to military duty when they “retire” due to old age and an inability to forage due to weakened mouths. They serve the defense of the nest as something of a chemical weapon specialist. When the colony is under attack, these veterans blow up a droplet-size balloon filled with a type of chemical generated in between segments of their neck and dorsal region.

When worker termites get older, blue crystal chambers, which resemble backpacks, grow on their two shoulder blades on their back. These crystals are a kind of protein called hemocyanin that contains copper, and they join together with saliva when under threat. This fusion causes a chemical reaction. The end product is a sticky liquid, like a gel, that is compressed to expand and then burst. This can fatally injure a predator. The poisonous substance that is dispersed causes rotting upon contact. The chemical formula of this blue crystal substance, along with its reactions, are still unknown.

Researchers from Oregon University (USA) reported that the mouth of an ant is worn down by age. When this occurs, these senior individuals, which used to cut leaves, now take on different jobs, like carrying the leaves. Leaf cutter ants, which are also known as the ranchers of the animal kingdom for their ability to cultivate fungi in their nests, can cut and carry leaves whose weight can be up to 50 times their body weight.

The leaves that are transported to the nest comprise the main ingredient required for the growth of fungi in a suitable environment regulated for the right temperature and humidity. This fungi is ultimately used to feed the colony. This is a fine example of senior members of a community staying active in a new role. And this is not just unique to termites: research shows that members of animal societies adapt to changes in their lives, and continue serving their colonies even if they lose some dexterity.

Our universe seems to be set up this way. As mentioned in the above examples, there is a change of occupation instead of just retirement. Just as there is no termite that stops working, there is no bird that says “I do not want to fly anymore because I am old,” or no tree that says, “I will retire and stop giving fruit because of my old age.” Organisms adapt to new conditions and find new ways to provide for our planet.

Our aging planet will continue rotating and the sun will keep smiling on us with its heat and light until the end of such organism’s lifetimes.

When it comes to humans, continuing with occupation and business as much as they can should be the desired effort. Especially for charity work, no one should mention retirement or leave of a duty, and receding to one’s quarters. Let us renew our intentions now, and review our senior living plans.