Underbug | Lisa Margonelli

Summary of: Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology
By: Lisa Margonelli


Welcome to the fascinating world of termites and technology. In ‘Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology’ by Lisa Margonelli, we delve deep into the extraordinary lives of these mysterious insects. Despite their notorious reputation as agents of destruction, termites hold the potential to unlock new possibilities in biofuel production and robotics. This summary highlights the evolution of termites, their complex social structures, and the ways in which their unique capabilities can inspire human innovation. By exploring the captivating stories of termite mounds that have inspired scientists for centuries, prepare to embark on an insightful adventure into the realm of termites and their potential impact on our future.

The Secret Lives of Termites

Despite being despised as pests, termites’ ability to digest wood and communicate with each other has allowed them to thrive for millions of years in vast numbers across the globe.

Termites have gained a notorious reputation for being pesky insects that cause billions of dollars in property damage each year. In fact, almost half of scientific papers about termites are about how to exterminate them. But what makes termites so despised by humans is their love for wood, a resource highly valued by humans. They can even eat through bricks, electrical poles, and even money. However, their ability to digest wood and communicate with each other also explains why these insects have managed to thrive for millions of years in vast numbers across the globe.

Despite their humble origins as solitary scavengers related to cockroaches, early termites evolved to have microbes in their guts that allowed them to digest wood. But every time they molted, they lost those microbes. To preserve these valuable digestive microbes, termites developed the habit of exchanging a “woodshake” of feces, microbes, and wood chips from mouth to mouth and mouth to anus. This helped these formerly solitary creatures become intensely social and refined over millions of years. This evolutionary breakthough allowed termites to migrate across oceans in hollow tree trunks and adapt to various climates.

Today, over 3,000 species of termites are scattered across the globe, living in a belt that stretches around the Earth’s equator and halfway to the North and South Poles. While they may cause significant damage, understanding their evolution and unique abilities can help us appreciate their important role in the ecosystem and possibly find ways to better coexist with these fascinating insects.

The Human Mirror of Social Insects

The original book summary delves into how people viewed termites and other social insects and ascribed human-like qualities or political structures to them. The first scientists who studied insects through the lens of human societies and structures saw rigid hierarchies with kings, aristocrats, laborers, and soldiers, with male rule prevailing until 1670s when they discovered the truth about supposed ‘kings.’ In the nineteenth century, social insects were used to justify everything from racism to anarchism. The metaphor of social insects was once again updated in the 1970s, likening them to assembly-line workers and then to neurons firing through the human brain. The American biologist Deborah Gordon cautioned against using unhelpful analogies that hid the fundamental dissimilarities between humans and insects while replacing one metaphor with another.

The Evolutionary Puzzle of Eusocial Termites

Termites are eusocial insects with a collective child-rearing and a division of labor between fertile and non-fertile castes. The queen and king attend to breeding while non-fertile termites become workers or soldiers. This poses a conundrum in terms of natural selection as only the queen and king contribute to gene propagation. There are two theories to explain how this works: the superorganism theory and the inclusive fitness theory. The former sees the colony as one individual that reproduces through altruistic behavior, while the latter posits that altruism makes sense when organisms sacrifice themselves for genetically similar ones. Termite scientists are now revisiting the idea of the superorganism theory.

The Surreal World of Termite Mounds

Termite mounds are more than just buildings. They behave like organic bodies, with a complex network of tunnels and chambers leading to a subterranean complex. Termite mounds have their own “lungs,” which regulate oxygen levels, and even their own “stomachs.” Scientists hypothesize that termites use a “cement pheromone” to guide mound construction, and some suggest that the mound is a composite animal with an external structure like a “skin” and tunnels forming an “immune system.” While these theories aren’t widely accepted, they point to the idea that termites are part of a living organism capable of its own kind of “thought.”

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