Backyard Biology

Nature stories from my backyard and beyond

Nature Activities

Termite Trails

Friday, December 3, 2010

In many insects, smell is an important language. Many social insects like ants communicate by chemical odors or pheromones. One use of these pheromones is to mark a trail. When foragers have found a food source, they leave a chemical trail as they make their way back to the nest. Other ants will then follow the trail to the food source. In a previous Nature Activity, I explained how you can disrupt an ant trail and send the ants into confusion by running your finger across the trail to wipe it out (Breaking Trail, May 7. 2010).

Termites also use chemical trails to mark the way to a food source. One of the chemicals used by some termites to mark the trail is the same chemical that is used to produce the ink in some pens. Making a trail of ink on a paper is like marking a highway for termites. They will follow the trail - be it a straight line, a circle or a meandering path.

In this activity, I test different types of inks on the termites I find in my back yard to see which ink is most like the pheromones used by the termites. If I want, I can set out some food for them (decomposing wood) and have them follow any path I choose for them to get to it.


  • termites (white ants are termites)- I always have a supply of termites in my mulch pile. Another good place to look is a slightly rotting log. Break it open and look for the “white ants”.
  • paper
  • a supply of different pens and pencils


  1. Make a series of lines on the paper with the different pens. Make sure to label each line with the pen that made it.termite trails

  2. Dump a bunch of termites on the paper. Direct them to wander over the lines if necessary.

  3. Record which lines they follow.

If you find a pen that works well, try different colored ink of the same brand. Do the termites respond the same way?

If the termites don't respond to any of your inks, try to find a different type of termite.

If the termites do respond to one of your inks, try a different termite. Do different types of termites respond to different chemicals?

Test a number of different types of ants to see if they respond to the chemicals in inks.