Any comic book or graphic novel fan knows that many superheroes don’t really look like much from the outside; just take a look at Peter Parker. In a similar fashion, termites — the tiny pests that can wreak havoc on homes — actually have a superpower that doesn’t just benefit them.
In fact, the superpower that termites possess might just make life better, more affordable, and healthier for everyone. Researchers at the University of Florida recently discovered why it’s so difficult to get rid of termites for good: They have a secret immunity system in place.
Termite poop, according to postdoctoral advocate Thomas Chouvenc at the Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center at UF, is actually an antibiotic for termites. Working with Nan-Yao Su, a professor of entomology, Chouvenc found out after decades of Americans battling termites why our approach has been so ineffective.
Going hand-in-hand with this discovery is a holistic, totally natural new control technique that might actually work. It’s been 50 years since advances in termite control have been made … and most homeowners would say it’s about time.
An uphill battle no more
Imagine this: You’re waging war against a massive army, but you’re not worried. Your sheer size and technology should make this easy, but you keep getting usurped.
It turns out that your “enemy” actually has endless shields that aren’t just really effective, they’re also free, abundant, and constantly reproducing themselves.
That’s what’s happening with termites. After all, termites can survive pretty much any infection, and when an infection does happen to one pest, it doesn’t spread to the rest of the colony.
Termites call soil their home; it’s not actually your wooden cabinets or even your home; that’s just lunch), which means their waste also stays in their homes.
They eat a lot of wood, which is a very healthy diet, and that means their waste products are healthy, too. This liquid-powder poop, which is what most people spot that lets them know they have termites on the premises, also makes great building blocks. Termites depend on their poop to build their nests.
Good for them, but what about us?
Right now, researchers are looking at a particular bacterial strain that was found in five different colonies. They introduced a fungus which causes the disease into a controlled environment, and the fungus won. However, when the Streptomyces bacterium was added, it protected the termites. But who’s behind such “crappy” (in a good way) research?
Sentricon, an invention by Su, helped to fund the research as well as a fund at UF that provides new research funding each year. As for Sentricon? Fittingly, it’s a termite-trap system that uses bait so the researchers have no shortage of healthy test subjects.
Now that it’s known how termites can fight off disease, the researchers can start looking at potential weaknesses, and even the benefits of the bacteria, which means these new termite antibiotics can possibly be used to help humans. This is a hopeful development since many current antibiotics can have serious side effects.
Fighting diseases is one market termites have cornered, but Su says, “We are desperate right now to find new antibiotics to fight human disease,” and termites might have the answer.
Just the beginning
There’s no telling whether termites will provide a safer, more natural, and affordable antibiotic solution, but we’ve been through five decades of uneven termite pest control and this is a massive leap/bound ahead. What can termite poop do for humans, whether it’s learning better ways of controlling pest invasions or actually helping us to improve our own health?
The researchers have cracked the secret superpowers of drywood termites, and it’s only a matter of time before something great might come out of all those hollowed-out tables, foundations, and cabinets.