Who runs the colony?

Che Guevara
Fearless leader

Most people will tell you that a termite Queen rules her colony. I think that’s a figment of their paradigm (way of looking at things). Sure the primary reproductive is central to the colony, and the laying of eggs is particularly important to colony survival, but to believe that she sits (locked) in her Royal Cell, exuding chemicals which neatly control the behaviour of each and every termite is a little far fetched. Rather, the termite colony is a form of exquisite chaos, much like the way we drive cars on roads. There are some basic traffic laws which are mostly followed, but rigid compliance only occurs in the presence of threat (police). Still, there are few accidents, and despite the individual will, things generally work out OK. Of course if one big traffic cop was trying to coordinate everything with explicit instructions to thousands of cars at once — things could get ugly..

Termites in the colony ebb and flow. Like us, they take on different roles as they mature. Unlike us (perhaps, unlike us after we reach adulthood), termites are strong followers. They follow the group, being strongly attracted to scents which are exuded from the underside of the belly. Thus the more termites walking a path, the more attractive that path becomes. So a simple positive feedback recruits more termites to a good food source. When a bee finds a good food source she (all the workers of the Hymenoptera {Ants, bees & wasps} are female, whereas a foraging termite can be of either sex), she returns to the hive and performs an elegant dance which recruits other workers to the same spot. What happens with termites? They are blind, so the dance is no use. Do they smell the breath {termites don’t really breath through their mouths}, sniff the bottom like dogs? Perhaps.

Things are more complicated than this simple positive feedback, because termites from a single colony forage in many areas at once, and can only work if there are negative feedback mechanisms to balance the positive ones. If not, as in Resnick’s simple model (pdf), all the termites would feed at the one source. Besides feeding on optimal food sources, termites tend the young, construct and maintain the nest, defend it against predators, collect water, humidify and condition the nest atmosphere, control unwanted microbes and tend or farm others.

The termite colony is indeed a site of complex behaviours, but these are emergent behaviours, arising as patterns as the individual termites go about, governed by simple rules. It’s true that the primary reproductive plays a disproportionate role in the determinant of overall colony behaviour, but her influence on the moment by moment activity of any termite is probably no stronger than your head of state’s influence upon what you are doing right now. And besides, termite families are rarely simple. Colonies can be more like communes with gangs of more closely related termites–still part of the same colony–tending to hang out and feed separately. It gets complex. Enough said.

Copyright © 1996-2016 Don Ewart Created, Saturday, 17 February 1996
Most recent code revision March 5 2016

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