By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Termite colonies live in mounds that are built to circulate air. These mounds are often compared to chimneys or giant lungs due to their structures. In this week’s Wondrium Short, we examine their influence on humans.
Most of us know termites for the havoc they wreak on our homes. In fact, termite damage in the United States costs as much as $3 billion annually—worldwide, that number balloons to $40 billion. However, as long as termites don’t make your home their home, their living environments are fascinating and even useful.
In Wondrium’s new course Why Insects Matter: Earth’s Most Essential Species, Dr. Scott Solomon, Associate Teaching Professor at Rice University, utilizes his background in ecology and evolutionary biology to explain the insect world. Termites are one of nature’s great recyclers, and their mounds are not only intelligently built, but they have also inspired human architects to design buildings with better air circulation.
A Breath of Fresh Air
“Nests are built to protect the entire colony, and in some species, [it] can be quite large—the mounds of some termites in Africa and Australia can be 30 feet high,” Dr. Solomon said. “These impressive structures are built with tunnels that allow air to flow through them so that the termites don’t suffocate. As temperatures fluctuate between day and night, warm air is driven up through chimney-like shafts.”
According to Dr. Solomon, these shafts split into narrower and narrower tunnels, finally reaching the thin outer wall of the mound, through which the air diffuses. Wind drives fresh air into the nest, and that air circulates until it reaches the termites within. Amazingly enough, the entire nest acts like a giant lung: oxygen flows in, carbon dioxide flows out. Termites can even adjust their mounds.
“The termites can control the flow of air by adjusting the location and size of tunnels, as well as the height of the mound,” Dr. Solomon said. “Controlling air flow also allows the termites to adjust the temperature and humidity inside the nest. The enormous, wedge-shaped mounds of compass termites in northern Australia are oriented along a North-South axis, which allows them to be heated evenly by the Sun.”
Better Living through Entomology
Since the advent of air conditioning, electricity bills around the world have spiked. Residents of apartments, condos, townhomes, and houses spend thousands of dollars per year keeping their homes cool. Owners of office buildings, factories, and other large units work at keeping structures cool, as well. However, taking a lesson from the insect world could help change all that.
“Termite nests have inspired some architects to design buildings that can regulate temperatures without the need for expensive air conditioning,” Dr. Solomon said. “Using biomimetic architecture, the Eastgate Center office and shopping complex in Zimbabwe’s capital city was built with a series of air tunnels that keep it cool.”
Sustainable architecture has gained traction in recent years, with everything from prominent solar panels to water pump systems for air conditioning. This idea, dubbed “permaculture,” may be a perfect fit for Harare’s termite-inspired air circulation system. As Dr. Solomon points out in Why Insects Matter, termites’ ability to regulate the temperature and humidity of their nests “allows them to live in environments that would otherwise be inhospitable.” A warming Earth could use some cooling down.