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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

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BLOCK: Today, in honor of mothers - mothers of all species - we present another story in our series "The Hidden World of Girls."

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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Ms. LISA MARGONELLI (Writer): My name is Lisa Margonelli. I am a writer, writing about the mysteries of the termite queen.

Inside a termite mound, there are worker termites; there are soldier termites; and then there are the kings and queens who are actually able to reproduce.

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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Mr. MARK MOFFETT (Researcher, Smithsonian Institution; Photographer, National Geographic): These winged, fluttery virgin queens, and the males emerging from little entrances in the colony, fly up. There can be clouds of them in the air. They're very edible, so around the world many people grab them and eat them. They're quite tasty if you fry them.

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

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Ms. MARGONELLI: Their flight might last just a second, might last a whole minute if they manage to catch the winds just right. When the queen lands, she scratches off her wings.

One of the best descriptions of how termites live is in a book from the 1920s called "The Soul of the White Ant," by a South African scientist -Eugene Marias - whose wife died when they had been married just over a year. He spent a lot of the rest of his life looking into a termite mound, and he came up with these incredible descriptions.

One moment, we see her with her wings intact and the next moment, she steps away and her wings are lying on the grass. She's much, much quicker than a woman who discards her evening gown and hangs it over a chair.

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

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

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

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

Mr. MOFFETT: 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.

Ms. MARGONELLI: 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.

Mr. MOFFETT: 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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Ms. MARGONELLI: 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.

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

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Ms. MARGONELLI: 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.

The concept of the queen was basically named by early colonial naturalists. When they dug through the termite mound and found this large female figure pumping out eggs, they said: Well, that's the queen, and she must be in charge.

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

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Ms. MARGONELLI: Soon, she can't move because she's too big to leave. She's boxed into this capsule. She has these little legs and little stumps of wings. She really is this captive ovary.

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.

There's this interesting question: 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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Mr. MOFFETT: As the queen dies, the workers often seem to not know what's happening. She gradually turns still, and they still don't have a clue. They circle her body. They keep tending her, cleaning her, waiting for eggs.

The queen is their mother. She is their god. They have formed their whole identity around her health and safety. Once she's gone, life does not make much sense.

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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BLOCK: 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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