If you have always found insects to be fascinating, then you may have noticed that not many people share your enthusiasm for creepy-crawlies. For many people, insects are nothing more than annoying, disgusting or even dangerous pests. While insects may not make for the best topic of conversation at parties, the capabilities of some insect species are nothing short of impressive. For ages, people of all types have marveled over the group of insects that are today referred to as “eusocial insects,” or simply, “social insects.” These insects are well known for living in colonies that operate according to a caste system. Social insects include bees, ants, wasps and termites. All social insect types are unique and very different from typical solitary insects, even dreaded termites. In fact, many experts regard termites as being the most unique of all social insects, as some species build towering and castle-like structures that are known as “mounds.” A mound is only one type of termite nest. For example, some termite nests are located entirely underground, while other nests exist within pieces of wood or on tree limbs. Termite nests may differ, but the colonies that exist within termite nests are quite similar in functioning, no matter the species being considered.
Termites are divided into three groups within a colony. These different groups, or castes, are known as workers, soldiers and reproductives, but all termites are genetically identical upon hatching as nymphs. Although scientists still have much to learn about how caste-differentiation occurs as termites age, it is well understood that a colony’s population must be constantly regulated by the queen’s pheromones so that productivity is not hampered by overpopulation or underpopulation. In the vast majority of cases, there exists only one reproductive queen and king in each colony, and the ratio of soldiers to workers must be closely monitored and regulated by queens. In case a worker or soldier dies or becomes lost, one of the many underdeveloped nymphs that are kept on reserve within a colony begin to develop into either workers or soldiers in order to replace the missing termites. In cases where one caste becomes overpopulated, selective cannibalism occurs in order to restore a colony’s proper balance. If massive amounts of soldier and worker termites die during a predatory attack, a queen sends a chemical message to nymphs in order to prompt their maturation into a soldier or worker. It has been theorized that these chemical messages, or pheromones, activate an organ near a nymph’s brain that prompts the release of the hormones responsible for making nymphs grow into soldiers or workers. This organ is known as the “corpora allata,” but experts still aren’t sure if hormones are the only bodily chemicals responsible for causing nymphs to suddenly mature into full workers or soldiers.
Has a particular insect species ever inspired you to study insects?