The climate hero that doesn’t sleep
Which bug is the greatest superhero?
Termite expert Matt Davies answers
Three people, one big question. In this edition: superbugs
Termite or not termite? Hoverfly hero or mother of dragonflies? To tie in with Season 02 of TOPIA – The Egg – we pitted three bug-loving humans against each other to argue the toss: which is the greatest bug superhero? Hollywood, you’re welcome.
When we asked Matt Davies to pick a superhero bug, it was a foregone conclusion that he’d choose the termite, the worker insect embracing the exact opposite of ‘quiet quitting’. Based in Portugal, he’s a co-founder at Mossy Earth, a social enterprise on a mission to restore wilderness, protect biodiversity and help fight climate change through reforestation and rewilding projects. With partners in Benin, Mossy Earth is fighting desertification by reintroducing the humble termite.
Matt Davies‘ 3-minute noodles
“Hollywood’s next superhero could be ‘The Termite’! A quiet, modest hero, perhaps even bullied, marginalised and misunderstood at the beginning of the movie by homeowners and pest controllers, the termite becomes the outright saviour by the end. Spoiler: their selflessness and incomparable work rate saves the planet from climate change.
Termites are unsung climate heroes. Need to prepare an ecosystem for coping with drought? Bring on the termites! The mounds they construct increase the rate at which water infiltrates the soil. This means several things – firstly, the vegetation is better able to cope with droughts. Secondly, less rain is required for vegetation to recover after a drought. And thirdly, the mounds that some termite species build help the soil retain more water and nutrients which help a variety of plants and trees to flourish. They are an essential part of the savannah ecosystem that gets overlooked by most people. But we need termites if we are to help protect and restore this ecosystem.
Need an engineer? Call a termite. Termites are incredible engineers, building impressive mounds that ensure that the colonies are kept at a suitable temperature and that there is sufficient gas exchange between the underground part of the mound and the air above. The way they build their mounds has even served as inspiration for the design of more energy-efficient human buildings. In fact, the architect Mick Pearce designed a building in Zimbabwe to be more energy efficient based on insights that came from studying termite mounds.
Move aside Bat Cave. So long Fortress of Solitude. Now is the era of the termite mound. These large tower-like structures are built by termites out of soil. Their size and shape vary a lot on the species and location, with some as tall as five metres while others are only a few centimetres tall. Typically, they consist of a complex network of tunnels designed for the circulation of air, regulation of temperature and gas exchange that connect to a chamber below ground. That’s where the queen lives.
These are the skyscrapers of the insect kingdom. One thing that’s unique about termites is that they build the tallest structures of any non-human animal. There is still a lot we don’t know about how termites evolved the ability to build these incredible structured mounds. However, it is thought that the size and complex structure of these mounds is part of what allowed termites to expand from tropical forests and dominate the savannahs.
They’re not afraid of hostile conditions. Termites can cope with the extreme temperatures of savannah ecosystems and play a role in preventing climate change from turning savannahs into deserts. Some people believe that termites are pests that provide no value to humans. It’s not true. They are actually the backbone of many savannah ecosystems, which are much more valuable to us if they don’t turn into deserts as a result of climate change.
And termite kryptonite? Other than human disturbance there are species that feed on them such as the incredible pangolin. They can also be attacked by ant colonies.
But they’re robust. Termite queens are thought to be the longest living insects on Earth, with a lifespan of up to 45 years. Termites don’t sleep. Ever. They are always working to perform their role in the colony. In a world without termites, we would be at an even bigger disadvantage in our fight against climate change.
Read: THE STINGER SWINDLER
Termites are the unsung climate heroes. Hoverflies can mimic bees and wasps. And dragonflies breathe out of their bums. Bugging out? Read more 3-MINUTE NOODLES, a regular series that asks three brilliant people one big question and gives them three minutes to rant.
What’s so good about this?
We need to start seeing bugs as superheroes, and that’s exactly what these three insect-lovers are doing. If we understand the brilliant work bugs are doing to keep our planet healthy, perhaps we’ll be better equipped to help them thrive. Curious about the amazing superpowers of the termite? Subscribe to Mossy Earth’s Youtube so you don’t miss videos explaining the goal of using them to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Mossy Earth has partnered with UK travel company Not Just Travel to raise money for rewilding projects – including bug superheroes.
Meet the writer
When she’s not pretending to be a beaver holding back the rivers, Katie Dancey-Downs is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for human stories, nature and culture. She’s travelled the world to report on issues such as vegan activism in Toronto, regenerative farming in India, and the destruction of Sacred Natural Sites in Kenya. She can usually be found with her head in a book, stomping through the forest, or wishing she looked cool on a surfboard. Follow @Katie_Dancey.