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Taking One for the Team

Colony of subterranean termites build nest beneath the tree trunk.
Cheng_Wei/Getty Images/iStockphoto
Colony of subterranean termites build nest beneath the tree trunk.

You’ve heard the saying, “Taking one for the team” – describing when someone willingly undertakes an unpleasant task or makes a personal sacrifice for the collective benefit of others.

Not surprisingly, you can find examples of this in the insect world with social insects, as individuals often take selfless measures in defense of the colony.

But an international team of researchers at the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic found a species of termite that takes the act of self-sacrifice to the extreme.

Members of a colony of social insects -- like honey bees, ants, or termites – work together to ensure the health of the colony. Each individual has a specific task, such as searching for food, feeding the young, tending to the queen, or defending the colony.

In the case of the termites the researchers studied, the role of some colony members changed as they became older. Aging termites developed pouches on their abdomens filled with a blue liquid.

When under attack, the elder termites joined their colony’s soldiers in defense of their home …but their method of warfare is a bit unique.

They essentially blow themselves up.

It turns out that the bulge of blue liquid on their abdomen is filled with copper-rich proteins. A bite from one of their invaders will rupture the pouch. When mixed with chemicals stored in the termite’s salivary glands, it becomes a highly toxic compound that explodes onto their enemies.

And while this reaction kills the termite, the chemicals it produces stick to their enemies, corroding their bodies.

Which brings us to another saying, “If you’re going to go out, you might as well go out with a bang!”

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