Good Vibrations: How Termites Know What's For Dinner

Termites may be blind, but they can still tell if your house would make a tasty dinner based on the 'musical' good vibrations wood makes as they chomp on it.

Because termites can't smell, taste or even see their food, researchers wondered how they knew what they were eating, especially since they seemed to be fairly sophisticated in their choices.

"If you give them a large block of wood and a small block of wood, they'll actually be able to tell the difference. And the question is, how do they do that? ... and the answer came as vibrations," said Ra Inta, an entomologist with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO).

As termites grip and pull wood fibers, the fibers snap and "send a small impulse through the entire structure that they're eating," Inta said in a recorded interview distributed by CSIRO.

Those vibrations return to the termites and let them know what they're eating.

The researchers found that they could manipulate the termites' tastes by generating false vibrations.

"When you record their feeding in a large block of wood, which they normally prefer, and you play it through a small block of wood, their feeding preference will actually change," Inta said. "It appears to them that the block of wood is actually larger."

Inta still has to figure out what exactly the insects are responding to in the vibration signals and how they distinguish between different types of materials.

"If we can understand what they assess and what they prefer in the vibration signal, then we can make use of whatever is in that signal to manipulate their behavior" Inta said. "So we can try and get them away from your house to somewhere else, or we can get them away from your house altogether."

Andrea Thompson
Live Science Contributor

Andrea Thompson is an associate editor at Scientific American, where she covers sustainability, energy and the environment. Prior to that, she was a senior writer covering climate science at Climate Central and a reporter and editor at Live Science, where she primarily covered Earth science and the environment. She holds a graduate degree in science health and environmental reporting from New York University, as well as a bachelor of science and and masters of science in atmospheric chemistry from the Georgia Institute of Technology.