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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

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Survivor: Termite

Do you remember hearing about a terrible hurricane that struck the city of New Orleans in August 2005? Named "Katrina," it was a huge storm that killed more than 1,800 people and destroyed tens of thousands of homes in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi. Many of the people who fled still haven't been able to return, because their houses were flooded or destroyed.

But scientists wondered if one positive thing might have come from that awful storm. They thought that maybe all the water dumped by the hurricane might help chase away the city's biggest pest: termites!

Termites look like medium-sized ants. They mostly live underground and eat rotting wood. But they can even eat things like books and photographs.

That's a big problem for homeowners and businesses in New Orleans, where there's an especially nasty kind called the Formosan subterranean termite. These pests are only about a quarter-inch long—but they've got a serious appetite! Termites will eat non-stop, 24 hours a day.

It Pays To Cooperate

You've got to give termites some credit. They know how to build elaborate underground homes and how to keep their favorite foods close by. And they've figured out that the best way to do this is to work together. That means each termite has a different chore to do.

Some termites are "workers." Their job is to look after young termites, repair the nest, and build tunnels. It's even their responsibility to make sure that other termites are groomed and kept clean!

Other termites are known as "soldiers." They're the defenders. They guard their fellow members from angry ants and foreign termites.

Another termite has a very special place in the family. She's called the "queen." She only has one job to do, but it's an important one. She lays lots and lots of eggs so that there will always be new termites. A queen termite can lay more than 1,000 eggs in a single day.

Hanging Tough

By working together, the termites are stronger. But even ARS scientists in New Orleans weren't expecting so many of them to survive Hurricane Katrina.

Mary Cornelius is an entomologist [en-toe-MALL-oh-gist]. That's a scientist who studies bugs. She watched the termites before and after the big storm to see how it affected them.

Cornelius keeps tabs on the termites through a series of 125 underground traps she watches in a New Orleans park. These traps look like tiny manhole covers and allow the researcher to take a peek at what's happening underground.

"Even after Hurricane Katrina, most of my traps had termites still active inside them," says Cornelius.

So how did the termites survive? The park where they live was badly flooded by the hurricane.

Social Structure

Cornelius thinks the insects' strong social structure may be one reason. The other thing that's probably important is a special material the termites make. "Termites use chewed-up wood, saliva and feces to make a substance called carton," explains Cornelius.

That's gross! But this substance dries up as hard as concrete. The termites use it to seal their underground homes. Cornelius thinks the carton material acts like weatherproofing, helping to keep the termites nice and dry.

Too bad that termites are such a nasty pest. They're an awfully interesting bunch!—By Erin Peabody, Agricultural Research Service, Information Staff.

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Last Modified: 9/4/2007
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