A Strange and Worthy Wonder

Underbug by Lisa Margonelli

MOST ENCOUNTERS with insects involve the chemicals invented to repel them from our bodies and our homes. With termites, our instinctive repulsion prevents most of us from ever examining the nuances of their behaviour; instead, they squat in the subterranean pits of both reality and imagination as undistinguished globs, wholeheartedly deserving extermination.

In Underbug, Lisa Margonelli seeks to correct the monolithic picture of termites as loathsome swarms (e.g., just 28 of approximately 3,000 termite species worldwide cause the accumulated billions of property damage). In an almost exhaustingly peripatetic survey spanning eight years of reportage, Margonelli travels from the deserts of Namibia and reclaimed bauxite mines of Australia to the laboratories of the U.S. Department of Energy; she speaks with chemists, microbiologists, condensed-matter physicists, and technologists, who all bring their own approaches (and limitations) to their concept of the archetypal termite. Many of these researchers focus on some aspect of “global-to-local” – how to understand the construction of the entire mound/colony through consideration of the individual node of the single termite. The maps they draw include biochemical pathways, mathematical modelling, and advanced engineering as they seek to unravel the mysteries of the termite in order to address their queries. These range from bioenergy (the black-box of the termite gut remains an intriguing source for turning cellulose into alternative fuels) to artificial intelligence (how to use termite sociality to program autonomous drones deployed in war zones). 

Termites, however, refuse to be simplified to fermentation vats, mindless superorganisms or pests. In Chapter 15, Kirstin Petersen, a roboticist who wanted to use termites as models for mechanical swarms, pointed out, “We thought every termite was the same termite. We were idiots.” This book might not inspire love for termites, but still offers a glimpse into their strange and worthy wonder.

  • Jennie has a degree in animal biology, loves learning unfamiliar words, and is extremely fond of God’s gift of chocolate. She lives in Zeeland, MI.

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