The Organisations of Termites
Are the nest-building activities of termites still harmoniously coordinated even when sensory communication is blocked by means of a barrier?
Günther Becker in Berlin has demonstrated in laboratory experiments that termites can influence each other by what he calls a 'biofield,' which could be electrical in nature. Becker suggested the 'biofield' was probably an alternating low-energy electric field produced by the termites themselves.
However, given that electrical and magnetic fields can influence the building activities of termites, such fields are unlikely to be able to provide the blueprint for the entire nest.... Another, more mysterious, kind of field seems likely to be involved as well.
Experiments carried out by the South African naturalist Eugène Marais suggest that such a field exists. In the 1920's, Marais made a fascinating series of observations of the way workers of a Eutermes species repaired large breaches he made in their mounds. The workers started repairing the breach from every side, each carrying a grain of earth which it coated with its sticky saliva, and glued into place. The workers on different sides of the breach did not come into contact with each other, and could not see each other, being blind. Nevertheless, the structures built out from the different sides joined together correctly. The repair activity seemed to be coordinated by some overall organising structure, which Marais attributed to the group soul, and I prefer to think of as a morphic field.
Take a steel plate a few feet wider and higher than the termitary. Drive it right through the centre of the breach you have made, in such a way that you divide the mound and the termitary into two separate parts. One section of the community can never be in touch with the other, and one of the sections will be separated from the queen's cell. The builders on one side of the breach know nothing of those on the other side. In spite of this the termites build a similar arch or tower on each side of the plate. When eventually you withdraw the plate, the two halves match perfectly after the dividing cut has been repaired. We cannot escape the ultimate conclusions that somewhere there exists a preconceived plan which the termites merely execute. Where is the soul, the psyche, in which this preconception exists? Where do the workers obtain their respective parts of the general design? We can drive in the steel plate and then make a breach on either side and still the termites build identical structures on each side.
Marais's experiments imply the existence of an organising field which, unlike the gallery-inhibiting field investigated by Becker, was not blocked by a metal plate, and was therefore unlikely to be electrical in nature.
Marais took this research further, with results that imply that the organising field is intimately linked to the queen, and that the death of the queen causes an immediate disruption of the entire field:
While the termites are carrying on their work of restoration on either side of the steel plate, dig a furrow enabling you to reach the queen's cell, disturbing the nest as little as possible. Expose the queen and destroy her. Immediately the whole community ceases work on either side of the plate. We can separate the termites from the queen for months by means of this plate, yet in spite of this they continue working systematically while she is alive in her cell; destroy or remove her, however, and their activity is at an end.
As far as I know, no one has ever tried to repeat Marais's experiments. The reductionist climate of modern biology is inhospitable to Marais's approach, and his work has been ignored by professional researchers. But in my opinion his findings provide the most startling point for a new wave of research on the organisation of insect societies.
First, it seems important to repeat Marais's experiment with the steel plate. Are the repair activities on both sides of the plate as well coordinated as Marais claimed?
This experiment will not be feasible for those who live in the colder parts of the world. In tropical countries, termite mounds come free; the only expense is the steel sheet. However, I imagine that driving a large steel plate into a termitary may be difficult. And it may well be difficult to withdraw it again without major disruptions after the termites have healed the breach. Marais gives no details, so the only way to find out is to try for oneself.
If the repair activities of the termites on the two sides are as well coordinated as Marais claimed, then many further experiments become possible. Do other kinds of barriers give similar results to steel? Can termites pass sound signals across those barriers? What happens to the pattern of activity of termites on one side of the barrier if the repair activities on the other side are prevented or disturbed? And so on.
Do disturbances to the queen affect the entire colony very rapidly, as Marais claimed? He describes how he was observing the queen of a very large colony, having opened up the royal cell, when a piece of hard clay fell onto the queen, dealing her a hard blow. The workers within the royal cell immediately ceased work and wandered round in aimless groups. He then visited far outlying parts of the nest many yards away:
Even in the farthest parts all work had ceased. The large soldiers and workers gathered in different parts of the nest. There appeared to be a tendency to collect in groups. There was not the least doubt that the shock to the queen was felt in the outermost parts of the termitary within a few minutes.
Possibly these dramatic effects spread through the colony as a result of sound signals, by insects releasing alarm pheromones in relays or by some other conventional means. But they could also have been transmitted very rapidly through the organising field, if such a field exists. In the latter case, the transmission might well still take place through barriers blocking the passage of sounds or smells.
Rather than killing the queen, or dropping hard objects on her, this experiment could be done simply by removing the queen, or by anaesthetizing her and the termites all around her. The activities of termites in distant parts of the colony would be closely observed while this was happening. The speed at which the disturbance spread could then be worked out. If almost immediate, then alarm pheromones could be ruled out, but sound would still be a possibility. It would be hard to rule out sound by means of barriers, because it would be difficult to prove that no sounds could have gone through or around them, unless sensitive microphones had been installed at various places within the colony to monitor the sound signals.
A better way of investigating the possible transmission of influences through fields would be to have a part of the colony within a portable structure that can be taken away from the main part of the colony. This could be, for example, a metal box previously placed near the nest in which the termites had constructed nest structures, or a metal box containing food to which the workers habitually went to feed. If such a box were removed, the termites within it would still be part of the colony but now deprived of all normal physical connections with the queen and other colony members. No doubt the mere fact of removing the box would disturb the insects within it, but if they were kept under continuous observation, it might be possible to observe dramatic changes in their behaviour when the queen was disturbed or anaesthetized in the main part of the next.
Similar experiments should also be possible with ants, which are relatively easy to keep in captivity.
In all such experiments it is important to work 'blind' as much as possible. For example, the person observing the chamber that has been moved should not know exactly when the queen-containing chamber is going to be disturbed. If dramatic changes in the ants' behavior are seen, and the time at which they happen is later found to correspond exactly to the time of disturbance, this would provide good evidence for a transmission of influence. Further experiments could then be carried out taking the separated chamber further and further away to see how far this influence can spread. Tests could then be made to see if the influence could be blocked by metal or other kinds of barriers, and so on. As soon as any repeatable effect is found, the nature of the organising field can be investigated progressively."
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