Parent Trap

Features - Research Update

University of Florida researchers find that sibling termites take care of the “kids” while moms and dads produce millions more offspring.

January 5, 2018

Stoy Hedges

Imagine mom and dad already have five children and are too busy, or lack the financial resources, to raise more children. Sometimes, older siblings must assume some parental duties. That’s also what happens with some subterranean termites, and it results in millions of termites surviving and eating customers’ property, according to University of Florida (UF) scientists.

As it stands, subterranean termites are among the most damaging termites in the world, and represent a significant part of the $40 billion annual cost in damages caused by insects worldwide, said Thomas Chouvenc, a research scientist in entomology and co-author of a new study about young termites that are raised by their older siblings.

“Now that we know that brood care by siblings is so important, we can look at ways to disrupt this behavior to eliminate colonies,” said Chouvenc, who wrote the paper with UF/IFAS entomology Professor Nan-Yao Su. “In fact, the baiting technology invented by Dr. Su (Sentricon by Dow AgroSciences) indirectly does this: It kills active workers and reduces the brood care, resulting in rapid brood death.

Professor Nan-Yao Su, a faculty member at the UF/IFAS Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center.
Nan-Yao Su: UF/IFAS

“So in a way, this study indirectly reveals some achilles heel of the colony. Future improvement for baiting technology may tap into this aspect,” Chouvenc said.

Chouvenc and Su collected Asian subterranean termites from swarming events in Broward County, Fla., using a light trap. In their laboratory, they grew young colonies with these new kings and queens and worked with different numbers of “children” termites. They discovered that at the very beginning, the queen and the king — mom and dad — care for their first offspring.

However, as soon as these termite workers become functional, they take care of their younger brothers and sisters. That leaves the parents with more time and resources to produce more offspring, said Chouvenc, who, along with Su, are scientists at the UF/IFAS Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center.

Termite caretaking wasn’t always like this. In fact, termites evolved from roaches, and roaches don’t exhibit such behaviors. Going from a small family unit of a primitive woodroach to a gigantic colony in termite societies took millions of years of evolution.

“Society grew more and more complex over time, resulting in termite colonies with millions of individuals,” said Chouvenc. “Some termite species became so good at taking care of their own that they colonized new ecological niches, including the wood inside your house.

“Once the parents pass their parental care duty onto their first offspring, they become completely dependent on the siblings’ care,” said Chouvenc. “So in addition to having the kids taking care of their younger siblings, they also take care of their parents. This means that the king and queen will lay more eggs, and the colony will grow bigger and faster.” Source: Brad Buck, IFAS Communications

The study was published in the journal Economic Entomology.