In today’s world, invasive and highly destructive termite species exist in all regions of the world with the exception of arctic regions, but this has not always been the case. Before European colonialism spread across the world, the most destructive, as well as the most advanced termite species existed in Asian and African regions. The Formosan subterranean termite and the Asian subterranean termite species are both widely acknowledged by experts to be the most destructive termite pests that exist in the world. Today, these two termite pests exist all over the globe, including the United States. The higher termites that are now well known for creating intricately designed nesting mounds originated in Africa, but they have existed for centuries in Australia and South America as well. Colonial expansion brought these termites to non-native regions for the first time, and European scientists became fascinated with the 30 foot termite mounds that they encountered in Africa. Many of these early scientists could not figure out how termites communicate in order to achieve such tremendous feats of social cooperation. Many respected European scientists from past centuries came to the conclusion that termites communicated via psychic telepathy, and it was widely believed that termites possessed a soul on account of their seemingly advanced social and architectural abilities.
Today it is well understood that termites communicate via pheromones, but scientists of previous centuries had not yet discovered these chemical messengers. Considering the relative lack of scientific knowledge concerning termites during the 19th century, many scientists assumed that termites possessed supernatural powers of communication. For example, a prominent termite researcher, Herbert Noyes, believed that termites were endowed with psychic powers that enabled them to cooperate socially in order to build complicated structures. Noyes, who wrote the 1937 book entitled Man and the Termite, came to this conclusion after failing to find scent glands on a termite’s body. Noyes considered the possibility that termites rely on odors for communication, but after failing to find evidence for this hypothesis, Noyes settled upon his “psychic termite” theory. Unlike Noyes, another early termite researcher, Eugene Marais, believed that only the termite queen sends odor-signals to worker and soldier termites. Marais also believed that this method of communication was invisible to humans because it originated in the “soul” of a termite. At least this makes more sense than Noyes’ idea about “psychic emanations.”
Do you have any interest in seeing a termite mound on location in Africa?