Research crowns termites the top engineers of the natural world

Researchers have crowned the mound building termite the “top engineer of the natural world”, as a new study demonstrates the supremacy of their building techniques, and reveals they possess remarkable engineering skills.

Termite mound (Copyright: Shutterstock – Simon Grieg)
Termite mound (Copyright: Shutterstock – Simon Grieg)

Scientists have already shown that termites build their mounds in a unique way involving "bio-cementation", a process where grains of soil are fused together into small balls with moisture, saliva and excretion. The chemical process which follows glues the ball together, and these are used like bricks to construct mounds reaching heights of 2 metres or more.

New research published in the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) Journal Environmental Geotechnics, has now shown this process makes the mounds ten times stronger than structures made of unmodified materials or control soil, and significantly decreases the mound's susceptibility to erosion.

The research also revealed that mound building termites apply notable engineering intellect. When given materials with different sized grains to build with - from glass beads to pure clays – the termites opted for materials with a finer grain which can be packed together more tightly creating more robust balls. Furthermore, they were able to adjust the amount of moisture used to help cement the balls, according to the material being offered to them.

The study - by the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore - involved a series of experiments examining the physical, chemical, and mechanical properties of mound soil, compared to control soil, and comparing the erodibility and stability of the mound itself. Experiments to determine the termites' capabilities were conducted under lab conditions.

Author Ramesh Kandasami said: "Engineers have long been studying the principle of bio-cementation and how it can be utilised in engineering to improve structures and environmental sustainability. Engineers, scientists and ecologists alike have also developed a fascination for the termites that use bio-cementation to construct their mounds; impressive structures with an intricate assemblage of tunnels, cavities and chambers which are engineering feats in themselves.

"However there has been little investigation on the actual effect of bio-cementation on a termite mound's strength and stability.

"When exposed to various conditions from oven drying to compression testing, the mound soil exhibited strength of 1500kPa, compared the control soil strength of 150kPa – a remarkable 10 fold increase. The mound soil also showed enhanced resistance to erosion and weathering.

"In addition, our research showed the termites themselves are capable engineers – probably one of the top engineers of the natural world. When offered a diverse mix of materials to build their 'bricks' - each with differing grain sizes - they wisely chose finer grains with the best engineering properties. But they also showed an ability to adapt to a range of foreign materials, applying bio-cementation and smartly adjusting water content accordingly.

"This behaviour is quite extraordinary, adding to the fascination of these creatures, and deepening our understanding of the termite mound phenomena. This study will hopefully provide further insight into the effectiveness of the bio-cementation process for a range of engineering structures which benefit society."

Notes to editors

The Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) is a leading source of professional expertise in transport, water supply and treatment, flood management, waste and energy. Established in 1818, it has 88,000 members, 25% of whom are based overseas. ICE’s vision is to place civil engineering at the heart of society, delivering sustainable development through knowledge, skills and professional expertise. ICE has long worked with the government of the day to help it to achieve its objectives, and has worked with industry to ensure that construction and civil engineering remain major contributors to the UK economy.