Commentary
7:58 am
Tue August 13, 2013

Into It: The Secret Life Of Suicide-Bombing Insects

Profile view of ant Camponotus saundersi.
Profile view of ant Camponotus saundersi.
Credit Noel Tawatao / AntsWeb.org

Suicide bombings, an act usually associated with terrorism, can be found in select insects that are built to self-destruct.

In Southeast Asia, at least nine different varieties of carpenter ants have an unusual talent; they can make themselves explode.

It's a natural act of defense in which they (Camponotus saundersi, for instance) grip an enemy, squeezing it tightly until the ants own abdominal lining ruptures. It's a suicide bombing that releases sticky toxins that glue the ant and its foe together, killing them both.

The act is called autothysis. Broken down into its Greek components, it's “self-sacrifice.” The ant has died for the colony in order to stave off a predator or protect foraging grounds.

Across the Pacific to South America, to French Guiana, where researchers recently discovered worker termites (Neocapritermes taracua) with a similar chemical weapon.

The termites' bodies carry crystals in a pouch, much like backpack. Put in danger, an old termite will puff up this pouch—in effect, readying a bomb. When the crystals mix with the termite's salivary liquid, the result is a toxic slime.

We can see parallels in other animal colonies like honey bees, who will sting invaders—though it will kill the bees themselves—in order to protect the hive. These altruistic displays, gruesome as they are, shape how these societies operate.