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Underbug

An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology

By Lisa Margonelli
13-minute read
Audio available
Underbug by Lisa Margonelli

Underbug (2018) explores the fascinating world of a bug so unloved it might just beat cockroaches in an unpopularity contest – the termite. The result of years of research and interviews with biologists, entomologists, and geneticists, Lisa Margonelli’s study sets out to rescue the reputation of this underappreciated creature. Along the way she explores termites’ remarkable architectural powers, unpacks their strange relationship with a 250 million-year-old fungus, and shows how the microbes in their guts might just help us create a more sustainable future. 

  • Scientists  
  • Nature-lovers 
  • Amateur entomologists

Lisa Margonelli is an award-winning journalist and the author of Oil on the Brain, a bestselling study of the fossil fuel industry. She is a senior editor at the global news outlet Zócalo Public Square. She has written about science, politics, and technology for the Atlantic, Wired, Scientific American, and the New York Times, among others. She is currently based in the United States. 

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Underbug

An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology

By Lisa Margonelli
  • Read in 13 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 8 key ideas
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Underbug by Lisa Margonelli
Synopsis

Underbug (2018) explores the fascinating world of a bug so unloved it might just beat cockroaches in an unpopularity contest – the termite. The result of years of research and interviews with biologists, entomologists, and geneticists, Lisa Margonelli’s study sets out to rescue the reputation of this underappreciated creature. Along the way she explores termites’ remarkable architectural powers, unpacks their strange relationship with a 250 million-year-old fungus, and shows how the microbes in their guts might just help us create a more sustainable future. 

Key idea 1 of 8

Termites eat something humans value a great deal – wood.  

If you pick up a random scientific paper about termites, there’s a good chance it’ll be a depressing read. Why? Well, of all the articles about termites published between 2000 and 2013, 49 percent were about how to exterminate them.

So why all this hate for termites? There’s a simple answer. 

The key message in this blink is: Termites eat something humans value a great deal – wood.  

Every year, termites cause around $40 billion worth of property damage globally. Electrical poles, railway trestles, clapboards, and bridges all make excellent termite snacks. Sometimes, they eat literal money as well. In 2011, termites devoured 10 million rupees' worth of notes in an Indian bank. Two years later, they gobbled up the life savings of a Chinese pensioner.

Termites don’t just have large appetites – there are also a lot of them. Collectively, they outweigh humans ten to one.

The first termites appeared between 250 to 155 million years ago. Their ancestors, cockroaches, were solitary scavengers living off of fruit, fungi, droppings, and rotten leaves. Once they’d laid their eggs, they scurried away and left their offspring to fend for themselves. Early termites resembled regular roaches, but they had one unique feature – their guts were full of microbes that allowed them to digest wood. 

This was a breakthrough for the species. Wood, after all, was the most abundant food source around, so being able to eat it gave termites an evolutionary edge. There was just one problem. Every time termites “molted” or replaced their guts, which they did a lot, they lost those precious microbes.

The answer to this evolutionary quandary? They started exchanging a slurry of feces, microbes, and wood chips – known as “woodshake” – from mouth to mouth and mouth to anus. This preserved the bacterial brew sloshing around their guts from generation to generation. Through this new process, these formerly solitary creatures became intensely social.

Millions of years of development refined termites even further, but this ability to live off wood was their evolutionary life raft. Over time, it carried them across oceans in hollow tree trunks and gave them a foothold in new climes. Today, there are over 3,000 named species of termites in a belt stretching around the Earth’s equator and extending halfway to the North and South Poles. 

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