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Training Termites with Ink Pens

Most people don't think that termites are fascinating. In fact, most people hate termites because they can do so much damage to the wood structure of people's homes. But, termites are actually quite amazing insects on many levels. When I started teaching biology, the other teachers told me that it was possible to "train" termites and I thought they were crazy. But, as it turns out, the teachers weren't lying to me, it is possible to get termites to do strange things and all you need are some regular old ink pens.

The experiment:

First you must collect termites. Termites can be found in just about all regions of the world and they tend to live in decaying wood. The trouble is that they can be hard to find, so if needed, go to the internet and purchase termites (that's right, you can actually purchase termites on the internet!). We purchase our worker termites from Carolina Biological.

Second, get a sheet of paper and several different types, brands, and colors of pens (see suggestions below). Draw lines on the piece of paper and set a few of your termites free on the paper. Make observations and see if you can figure out if they are following certain lines. If they do follow certain lines, make a hypothesis about why they are following certain lines.

The explanation:

You should see that the termites will follow some lines and not others but that they will follow many different colors. This means, assuming your termites are following the 'rules', that the color doesn't matter to the termite. This makes sense because termites are blind, they have no eyes. It is also likely that your termites followed some brands of pen line but not others. We can conclude that there must be some difference in the brand that causes termites to be attracted to the ink.

If termites don't have eyes, then how to they "see"? Termites navigate by feeling their way around and by using their antenna to "smell" the air and soil around them. Because termites live in large colonies and because each type of termite (workers, soldiers, etc) have different roles, they use a special chemical called a pheromone to give off a signal (similar to a very specific smell that communicates something very specific) to the others in the group.

When worker termites find new sources of food, they will leave a trail of a specific kind of pheromone called "dodecatrienol" along the path so that other workers can follow the trail to food and so they all can find their way back home.

Why do termites follow an ink trails?

A lot of the ink pens that we use have a chemical called 2-phenoxyethanol which is almost the same chemical structure as dodecatrienol, the pheromone left behind by worker termites when they make a trail for others to follow!

So, get out there and find yourself some termites and see if you've got what it takes to be a termite trainer!

If you think termites and this experiment are fascinating, you will appreciate my page and experiment "What Happens to Poop in the Jungle" where I examine fresh poop in the Borneo jungle to see what critters come to visit. Believe me, I never thought poop could be so fascinating!

Keep on Learning! ~Craig


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