Termite Queens Reject Kings, Reproduce Anyway

Ah, the life of a termite queen. Once you've established a colony, your main job is to mate with the termite king and fill your subterranean halls with your squirming, wood-hungry brood. Apparently, however, all that baby-making takes a toll on your life span, while the king lives on. Enter the secondary queen, who picks up right where the dead primary queen left off.

Scientists at North Carolina State University have made a fascinating discovery concerning just where this secondary queen comes from. While the primary queen produces the rest of the colony's young through sexual reproduction with the king, she goes it alone when it comes to spawning a successor. Yes, she produces asexually, producing an offspring that shares only her genes -- essentially cloning herself.

According to an article at Science Daily, the termite queen uses this alternate method of reproduction to maintain genetic diversity and avoid the dangers of inbreeding. In other words, the termite king doesn't start reproducing with his own daughter. This arrangement also allows for maximum reproductive efficiency, as the primary queen doesn't need to slow down and worry about her own health.

The university study just covered Japanese termites, but the researchers plan to examine other species of termite for signs of asexual reproduction among termite royalty.

More insect and cloning goodness awaits at HowStuffWorks.com: How Cloning Works How Termites Work How do I know if termites are eating my house?

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.