A Termite Queen And Her Ultimate Sacrifice The termite queen may be the mother who makes the ultimate sacrifice for her swarms of children. Isolated in an earthen capsule, she lays more than a quarter-billion eggs in her lifetime. On the eve of Mother's Day, NPR honors this species' story of struggle, rebirth and death below ground.
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A Termite Queen And Her Ultimate Sacrifice

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A Termite Queen And Her Ultimate Sacrifice

A Termite Queen And Her Ultimate Sacrifice

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

: The Kitchen Sisters - producers Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva - dig deep into the towering termite mounds of the African savannah to explore the secret, underground life of the termite queen.

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: Once a year, these reproductives - alates, they're called - come pouring out of the mound all at once, and they have wings. The life of the termites is only evident during those few nights when things are damp, and you have this one moment of watching them fly and fall to the ground.

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: I am Mark Moffett, researcher, associate at the Smithsonian Institution, and a photographer for National Geographic.

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: But to get back to the nuptial flight - if the queen happens to meet a king...

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: ...they crawl off, and they make themselves a little hole in the ground.

: The king and queen disappear forever below ground. They never see the light of day again.

: The queen produces an egg every three seconds, for 15 years.

: The queens of these huge termite colonies can lay a quarter- billion eggs in their lifetime. Talk about trying to keep track of the kids.

: Her body distends. It starts off as being the length of a dime, and it extends to being about the size of a human index finger.

: So this little male king sits next to this enormous female that can be several inches long - a ghastly thing. Even an entomologist like myself, who loves all creatures equally, is pretty startled when he sees a termite queen.

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: Her skin is stretched and translucent. Her body keeps pulsating. You can see this horrific juice bubbling underneath the surface. The babies begin to tend the queen. They feed her. They clean her. She sweats this exudate that has to be licked off continuously. They carry away the eggs, stack them in little piles, and tend them until the little termites hatch. Gradually, she gives birth to this whole mound of termites.

: The colonies, as they grow huge, eventually developed what amounts to a bomb shelter for the queen.

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: The queen so hidden, so deep inside the mound, so sequestered from the rest of the world, so hard to get out if you don't have a backhoe and an ax.

T: Well, that's the queen, and she must be in charge.

: Europeans had had queens for centuries, so they thought they had instantly recognized what she must be.

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: It's said when she comes to the end of her usefulness, her children gather around her and lick her to death, drawing the fluids and the fats out of her body.

T: Is she in charge, or is she in fact the captive slave, the ultimate queen mother who sacrificed everything for her children and the mound?

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: Gradually, they die out. What they leave behind them is this immense shell, this city, this huge mound. It's possible that it's repopulated by her offspring, the young queen she sent out earlier. That starts the cycle anew.

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: The secret life of the termite queen was produced by The Kitchen Sisters, and mixed by Jim McKee. You can hear the sounds of the termite mound, and see the queen, at npr.org.

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