How Termite Queen Pheremones Control the Colony

Termites are called social insects. Like honeybees and ants, termites live in colonies. Social insects are very successful because they have a well–organized system.

The termites in a colony are divided into three groups, called castes. In most termite colonies, workers are sterile termites. The workers gather the food, build the nest, and care for the immature termites.

Most termite colonies have some soldiers. These termites have large heads and fierce–looking jaws. The soldiers defend the colony against ants and other invaders. The soldiers cannot feed themselves, so the workers must feed them.

Termite colonies also have reproductives, or queens. Their job is to produce eggs. There may be secondary reproductives that assist the original queen.

Immature termites shed their skins frequently as they develop. Each time they shed their skin, the immature termites look more like the adult caste that they will become. However, until they become adults, immature termites can change castes if the needs of the colony change.

The termite colony must have the right balance of workers, soldiers, and queens. If the colony had too many soldiers, they would starve because the workers could not provide enough food.

If the colony had too many queens, they would produce too many eggs. The workers could not care for all of them, so some of the immature termites would perish.

Scientists have discovered that the queens regulate the balance of the castes in the colony. The queens do this with chemicals, called pheromones. Scientists refer to this as queen pheromone.

The queens produce the pheromones from glands on their bodies. The workers and soldiers pass the pheromone to all of the termites in the colony. As long as the queen pheromone is present, none of the immature termites develop into new queens. All of the immature termites develop into workers and soldiers to replace the ones that die.

If the queen dies or becomes sterile, the queen pheromone disappears. When there is no more queen pheromone in the colony, some of the immature termites start to develop into new queens.

As soon as there are new queens, the balance in the colony is restored. The new queens produce pheromones to prevent any more queens from developing.

Scientists were able to produce synthetic queen pheromones. They showed that the synthetic pheromones prevented immature termites from developing into queens.

These tests made the scientists hopeful that someday people will be able to use synthetic pheromones to control termite colonies and protect homes from termite damage.