The Secret Life of the Termite Queen


Produced by The Kitchen Sisters
In collaboration with Nathan Dalton
Mixed by Jim McKee
Air date—May 6, 2011

The Secret Life of the Termite Queen by The Kitchen Sisters

Hidden away in a towering, castle-like mound on the African savannah lives the termite queen. There, isolated in a almost impenetrable earthen capsule, she lays over a quarter of a billion children in her lifetime.

“The concept of the queen was basically named by early colonial naturalists,” says writer, Lisa Margonelli, who has been studying the mysteries of the termites. “When they dug through the termite mound and found this large female figure pumping out eggs they said, ‘well, that’s the queen and she must be in charge.’”

The Nuptial Flight
Inside the termite mound is a world filled with non-stop activity and purpose. Each termite has a highly specified job. There are worker termites, soldiers termites and a special group of males and females called “alates,” that are able to reproduce.

Once a year, on a particular damp warm evening, when the conditions are just right, these winged, virgin queens and males pour out of small crevices in the mound and fly into the air.

Mark Moffett, Researcher Associate at the Smithsonian Institution and a photographer for National Geographic, has photographed these clouds of termites as they emerge. “They’re very edible,” Mark notes. “Around the world many people grab them and eat them. They’re quite tasty, I usually fry them.”

The termites’ flight lasts only a brief moment before they float to the ground. When the queen lands she scratches off her wings.

“One moment we see her with her wings in tack and the next moment she steps away and her wings are lying in the grass,” wrote South African naturalist and poet Eugene Marias in his 1937 book “The Soul of the White Ant”. “She’s much, much quicker than a woman who discards her evening gown and hangs it over a chair.”

An Egg Every 3 Seconds for 15 Years
If a queen happens to meet a king they crawl off, dig a hole and disappear forever below ground, never to see the light of day again. The two mate, and the world of the mound begins.

“The queen produces an egg every three seconds, for fifteen years,” Margonelli describes. “Her body distends. What starts off as being the length of a dime extends to be about the size of a human index finger.”

As the workers construct elaborate vaulted chambers that can rise as high as 30 feet above ground, the king remains inside a protective capsule with the queen throughout her life.

“This little male king sits next to this enormous female that can be several inches long, a ghastly thing,” says Mark Moffett. “Even an entomologist, like myself, who loves all creatures equally, is pretty startled when he sees a termite queen.”

Her skin is stretched and translucent revealing a bubbling juice underneath the surface. The babies begin to tend the queen. They feed her and they clean her. She sweats an exudate that they lick off continuously. These workers carry away the eggs, stack them in little piles and tend them until the little termites hatch. Gradually the queen gives birth to the entire mound.

A Captive Ovary
Soon the queen is too big to leave the capsule. She has tiny legs and little stumps of wings and can’t move. “She really is this captive ovary,” says Margonelli. It’s said that when she comes to the end of her usefulness her children gather around her and lick her to death, drawing the fluids and the fats out of her body.

“There’s this interesting question,” says Margonelli. “Is she in charge or is she in fact the captive slave, the ultimate queen mother who sacrificed everything for her children and the mound?” (Photo by Barbara Thorne)

As the queen dies the workers keep tending her, cleaning her, and waiting for eggs. “The queen is their mother,” says Moffett. “She is their god. They have formed their whole identity around her health and safety. Once she’s gone life does not make much sense.”

The entire mound gradually dies out. “What they leave behind them is this immense shell, this city this huge mound. It’s possible that it’s repopulated by her offspring, the young virgin queens she sent out earlier. That starts the cycle anew.”

Lisa Margonelli talks about Eugene Marais, an eccentric natural scientist, a poet, a story teller, a drug addict, a psychologist, in South Africa who spent a lot of his life staring into a termite mound.




An Excerpt from “The Soul of the White Ant” by Eugene Marais, 1937

“Let us watch one of the termites which has flown and settled in the grass near at hand. We will suppose it is female — the two sexes cannot be distinguished with the naked eye. The first thing she does is to discard her wings. This she succeeds in doing by a lightning-like movement—so fast that we cannot follow it with the eye. One moment we see her with her wings intact, the next moment she steps away, and her four wings are lying on the grass—she is much, much quicker than a woman who discards her evening gown and hangs it over a chair. It took months for her wings to grow. For years perhaps she has lived in subterranean darkness, in preparation for this one moment. For a period of three seconds, for a distance of perhaps three yards, she enjoyed the exquisite thrill of flight and with that the object of a great preparation has been fulfilled and the fairy-like wings are flung aside like a worn-out garment…”

“One may imagine Nature addressing the queen thus, after her short flight: ‘Beloved, you are going to suffer a great loss. Instead of living in this glowing sunlight, you are going to spend your days in absolute darkness. Instead of the citizenship of the wide veld, instead of the freedom of the air, of mountains, trees and plains, you are going to spend your days as a prisoner in a narrow vault, in whose confines you will be unable to make the least movement. The annual return of the love season, the search for your beloved and the happy finding of your home and all the happiness bound up in this periodical stirring of the soul, of all this you are to be deprived. But in place of all this, you yourself will become a far more important and wonderful being. Although you will apparently be an immobile shapeless mass buried in a living grave, you will actually be a sensitive mainspring. You will become the feeling, the thinking, the seeing of a life a thousand times greater and more important than yours could ever have become. Above all, I will give you protection. The million dangers, the million enemies which threatened your life on every hand, will in your new life fling themselves in vain against your armor.’”

“Has the queen paid too dearly for protection? Nature answers this question in a different way from that in which we, or the queen, would.

‘What matters it to me how much or how little is paid for the privilege of my protection? How much happiness is lost and how much misery the new life entails is of no importance. What do I care for the individual? The race is safe, rejoicing, inexterminable. The individual must always pay, and no price is too high.’”

Lisa Margonelli writes about the global culture and economy of energy. As director of the New America Foundation Energy Policy Initiative, Ms. Margonelli’s work includes an examination of the promise and possibility of the post-oil world and California’s unique opportunity to benefit from new technologies and policies. Her book about the oil supply chain, Oil On the Brain: Petroleum’s Long Strange Trip to Your Tank, was recognized as one of the 25 Notable Books of 2007 by the American Library Association and also won a 2008 Northern California Book Award. She is a graduate of Yale.


Mark Moffett, called “the Indiana Jones of entomology” by the National Geographic Society, fell in love with ants when he was a child. He’s been studying them professionally for the past 30 years — first as a researcher at Harvard and then at the University of California, Berkeley and the Smithsonian Institution. Moffett is a photographer for National Geographic. He maps his journeys around the world to research various species of ants in his new book, Adventures Among Ants: A Global Safari with a Cast of Trillions.

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Music from the Story:

When the Levee Breaks—Yat Kah with Albert Kuvezin
Requiem for a Dream—Kronos
Schmetterlingsschaukel—Butterfly wings—Rebecca Horn
Solar Diamonds, The Day the Earth Stood Still—Bernard Herrmann
Alone in Kyoto—Air
Vulture—Justin Robinson and the Mary Annettes

LISTEN: Mound Sound

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Special Thanks
Lisa Margonelli, Mark Moffett (Dr. Bugs), Scott Turner, Rubert Soar, Doug McCray & Pop-Up

Major Funding is The Hidden World of Girls is provided by The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, The National Endowment for the Arts which believes that a great nation deserves great art, and listener contributions to The Kitchen Sisters Productions

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Funding for this series comes from:

National Endowment for the Arts National Endowment for the Arts Corporation for Public Broadcasting

Further Support Provided By:

NPR Kitchen Sisters


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