The Genius of Termite Fungus

Screenshot 2019-07-09 at 22.54.51People with ponds are not to be envied. Sometimes, walking barefoot in the lush grass, on those hot and balmy nights of our record-setting Summer just gone, they accidentally trod on eels.  Yes! Eels!!

I’d overheard a traumatic conversation about it in a coffee shop (traumatic for me anyway) so I looked it up and it’s true. It’s another reason to thank God I live on the third floor of a polluted central London back street.

Pond-dwelling yellow eels, once they have matured after 20 years or so, get bored of living and decide to breed and die. So they  jump out of the pond and slither across land until they find a river, stream or sewer. Provided they don’t get squished underfoot they then turn silver , dissolve their stomachs, their eyes grow big and  they swim downstream to the sea, cross the Atlantic to the Sargasso Sea (near Bermuda),  breed and die.

This nature trek of the mind was exhilarating; A blessed escape from reading about start ups,  entrepreneurialism or my sci-fi-ish paranoia about robots (which isn’t paranoia because I’m right).

No sooner did I develop this appetite for respite than a book about Termites landed on my desk and, dear reader,  it is so good that it came within a whisker of achieving the full weight of a maximum 9.8 Newtons.

Eels, are nothing. For over a week I thought they were a big deal but they are no more than a gramophone record  compared to the Spotify that is the mighty termite.

In my ignorance I had thought that termites were merely a strain of cockroachy-anty type insect that built those enormous nine foot high earth mounds. You’ve noticed them. They’re the ones that Attenborough glances at when he’s scouring  the world’s deserts for creatures which are more showbiz.

I was so wrong it’s hard to know where to start. Consider this: Termites survive on wood and grass and dung. A lot of it, in fact so much that in parts of Australia 80% of the trees are hollow. Turning wood, grass and excrement into an energy source is alchemy and like turning lead into gold it is beyond our reach. If we could do it at scale a whole lot of other problems would be solved. So governments and businesses  (and the military) have invested a lot of money into termite investigations. Following the twists and turns of the eccentric scientists is the path taken by this excellent book.

Here’s another thing: There are lower termites and higher termites. Higher termites cannot themselves process the cellulose in wood. Their trick is to maintain  a zoo of tiny creatures called protists in their guts who do possess the secret. The termites forage and swallow the grass and then protists digest it and excrete sugars. The termites are dependent on the protists and vice-versa. It’s a symbiotic relationship that goes back tens of millions of years. But like the chicken and the egg no-one knows which came first.

Lower termites don’t have such an internal gut zoo so they do their digestion on the outside. They farm fungus at the bottom of their termite mounds.  The fungus feeds on the grass and wood brought by the termites. In return the fungus breaks down the cellulose and makes it digestible by the termites. The termites depend on the fungus and the fungus in turn depends on the termites.

Which is why scientists long ago asked themselves whether the creature they are studying is not the termite, or the fungus, or the protist but actually a super-organism which is made of everything. Consider this: An average fungus-powered mound which contains 11 pounds of termites eats as much dead grass as a 900 pound cow.

So why not the full 9.8? Well, it’s my robot paranoia from which even a book about termites could not provide a break. To understand how millions of termites with no central planning department could be the architects and project managers of very complex mounds with hundreds of precise passageways scientists decided to build robot termites. These became the prototypes for swarms of tiny airborne drones . The defence industry is both terrified of the implications of this and enraptured. A cloud of insect sized drones would be almost impossible to intercept and could carry all sorts of death and havoc in their robo-claws. The growing fear is that these are becoming weapons of war more deadly than nuclear bombs.

So in studying how termites can perform such wonders as making clean energy and turning the desert fertile we may have unlocked another means of Armageddon. So, not 9.8.


I read: Underbug


Lisa Margonelli