Science Fair season is again upon us! Here’s an idea for an easy (and informative!) project using a common house pest–the termite!
Termites are social insects, meaning that they live in large groups with a division of labor (just like ants and bees). Worker termites leave the colony to forage for food. In order to communicate to each other about paths to rich food sources, termites lay down chemical trails. These trails cut down on the amount of time termites spend searching randomly for food. Instead, the trails enable them to go directly to a resource without wasting time or energy mistakenly walking in the wrong direction.
Interestingly, the ink from some common ballpoint pens causes termites to behave like they are following a chemical trail laid down by a fellow termite. You can draw a straight or curved line (even your name!), and the termites will follow it. Really! This is because a common solvent used in pen ink is 2-phenoxyethanol. This compound is also a major component of the termite trail pheromone blend. The most common pens that use this solvent are those made by Bic®.
A great science fair project could involve creating a mini maze with a food source (like untreated wood) at the end. Make sure the floor of the maze is constructed of paper that can be easily removed. Have individual termites navigate the maze; record how long it takes them to reach the food source. These time recordings will serve as the control. Replace the paper in the bottom of the maze to begin the experimental trial. For this trial, draw a line through the maze to the food source. Again, have individual termites navigate the maze and record how long it takes them to reach the food source. You should observe a drastic decrease in the amount of time spent in the maze. Students can discuss insect communication, foraging, and energy costs in their reports.