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Termites: Master Architects

Traces of termites eat old wood.

The construction of the Great Pyramids in Egypt remain somewhat of a mystery. The Egyptians didn’t leave behind written records so there have been many theories proposed over the years. But the truth is still unclear: How were the giant blocks moved? Did they really use the Big and Little Dippers to align the pyramids’ direction? And yet they were so accurate and precise, the technique was mind-boggling.

Enter the termite. Tiny, blind creatures capable of moving tons of soil to build giant, elaborate nests, also called mounds. Termite mounds are above-ground structures made from termite fecal matter, saliva and mud. They are built by termite species in hot climates such as Africa and Australia and are designed for protection from scorching temperatures. Chimneys are incorporated in mound architecture in order to better circulate airflow, which keep temperatures moderate inside. Without plans or a foreman, how do they manage to produce temperature-controlled environments with elaborate ventilation and cooling systems, and specialized chambers to store food, hold eggs, and house the Queen?

To find out, scientists used X-rays to scan and map the network of chambers and tunnels that make up termite mounds of three different genuses of African termites. The largest recorded mound was 19’ wide and the tallest measured 41‘ tall! Engineers, biologists and architects that study termites are now developing a new theory to explain the spectacular mounds – and their findings may help revolutionize the way we construct our own buildings.

In a word, it all comes down to teamwork. As a colony, they are able to create worlds that far exceed their individual capabilities. It’s thought that each individual termite type is pre-programmed to carry out a certain behavior, so mound-building could look like this: a termite will grab one soil particle, mix it with water and saliva and cement it in place. The next termite will come along and put their soil blob down next to the one previous, and this continues until eventually a wall is built. However, soon there are too many termites walking around with soil blobs, and this results in a termite traffic jam. At that point, termites give up and just drop their blobs where they are. Then another termite blob-drops next to them, beginning another structure. Eventually walls and tunnels connect, and at some point, a mound almost magically appears. Sounds crazy, right? But it works.

Termite mounds can take four to five years to build, but a really heavy downpour might cause a third of the mounds to collapse. So termites are always scurrying to rebuild their mounds as fast as the weather erodes them.

Back in Arizona, desert subterranean termites are the wood-consuming pests that typically live underground. A majority of their destruction happens in your foundation, supports or other wooden structures.

Think you have termites? Get a professional to give you an inspection and free estimate.

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