It is a common complaint that those in power get all the benefits, while those who remain suffer all the burdens. Nowhere is that more true than in the caste system of the termite world.
There is no such thing as equality in the termite world. Termites are born into a rigid caste system, defining their roles and setting limits on their lifespans.
At the top of the caste is the queen termite. Her job is to lay eggs, and it is a full-time job. A queen may lay as many as 30,000 eggs per day. Over even a short lifespan, this is an impressive number. The queen termite does nothing halfway, though. Unlike most insects, which have a very brief lifespan, the queens of some North American species can live up to 30 years, while their African counterparts can live for more than 50 years.
Getting back to the egg-production matter, consider the size of a queen termite’s family. At 30,000 eggs per day, that comes out to about 11 million per year. In a 30-year lifespan, one queen has the potential of having over 300 million offspring. All things considered, it makes Valentina Vassilyev’s record of giving birth to 69 children seem rather paltry.
Each termite that emerges from those eggs and grows to maturity will fall within the hive’s social structure. Next to the queen, the king has the most-favored status. The king enjoys the same long life as the queen, and the two of them mate for life — a great rarity among insects.
The king and the queen have two primary roles. They ensure the continuation of the colony through a prolific practice of egg production and fertilization. They also work together to produce a pheromone that inhibits sexual maturity among the rest of the colony, thus securing their positions at the top of the caste.
If the queen dies or part of the nest is separated from her, the new queens will develop, once freed from the effects of the former queen’s pheromones. This allows the colony to survive under new leadership.
If the colony gets big enough, the queen may permit the development of secondary queens. These are still subservient to the queen, and their sole purpose is to produce additional eggs to supplement the growth of the colony. Often, the secondary queen will be winged, allowing for the expansion of the colony or the creation of a new one.
The majority of the colony’s termites fall within the worker category. Workers provide food for the king and queen, forage for food, move eggs to incubation chambers, and maintain the colony’s nest. The workers are the ones who cause damage to houses and other wood structures. They have the ability to consume and digest the cellulose in wood. Having done so, they take on the responsibility of feeding the other members of the colony through a process known as trophallaxis. Trophallaxis takes on two forms, neither of which sounds very appetizing. The method used by many insects is stomodeal trophallaxis, which is merely a polite way of saying that one insect vomits nutrients into the mouth of another. As vile as that may sound to our ears, termites have chosen an even more unpleasant method of eating known as proctodeal trophallaxis. A termite who is feeling a bit peckish will fill its tummy by letting a worker poop into its mouth.
Oddly, we have been unable to find much literature that addresses the obvious problem of bad breath within a termite colony. Obviously, more research in this field is needed.
Rounding out the caste system are the soldier termites. Their sole purpose is to defend the colony. They can typically be spotted because of their fierce-looking appearance with large heads and powerful jaws. Because of the massive jaws, they are unable to feed themselves, so they rely on the workers to provide them with nourishment. The soldiers of some species have small openings on their heads called fontanelles. These are capable of emitting defensive secretions that repel their opponents. Soldiers make up 1-3% of the colony population.
Unlike the long-living royalty at the top of the caste system, workers and soldiers typically live for one to two years. Given the above-mentioned dietary practices, we have little doubt that they are more than happy to leave this mortal coil.