Lisa Margonelli in The Atlantic:
For more than a hundred million years, termites have lived in obscurity, noticed only by the occasional hungry anteater or, more recently, by dismayed homeowners. Other social insects, such as bees and ants, are celebrated for their industriousness and engineering feats, but popular culture has not gotten around to cheering on termites for theirs—even though they build mounds as tall as 20 feet, which may be oriented north-south as accurately as if plotted with a compass, in order to maximize heat from the sun. The extraordinary powers evolution has bestowed on termites—some protect the mound by spraying chemicals from nozzles on their heads at intruders, while others have snapping mandibles that can decapitate invading ants—have similarly failed to elevate their status. On the contrary: last year, scientists at the London Natural History Museum called termites “social cockroaches” and proposed reclassifying them, in a paper brusquely titled “Death of an Order.”
The more closely one examines the termite, the more mysteries one finds. In some species, if a termite discovers a contamination in the mound, it alerts everyone else, and a hygiene frenzy begins. As a disease passes through a mound, the survivors vaccinate the young with their antennae. When a mound’s queen is no longer capable of reproduction, the workers may gather around her distended body and lick her to death.