Termites: The Inner Sanctum (2012) Movie Script

from the outside,
and from the inside.
More than 2,000 species of them.
You'll see their enemies,
and their end,
and you will penetrate
to their secret center.
In the east African savanna,
termite hills are nothing special,
unless you've never seen inside before,
seen their sunless secret lives,
and the scale of their citadels.
Eyeless, teeming insects.
And yet, it seems, to know them,
is to love them,
especially when you
understand the roles they play
in the functioning of our planet.
Studying termites can be frustrating.
They're not the most
cooperative of beasts.
They do their own thing.
But these two veteran scientists
are about to share a profound insight,
a glimpse into the
termite's inner sanctum,
a secret that has resisted
all investigation.
A comfortable retirement
should have rewarded
biologists Joanna Darlington
and Reinhard Leuthold,
but when you're as dedicated
to termites as they are,
you can't retire while
there's so much to learn.
Cannot never be absolutely sure.
Yes, you can be absolutely
sure it's a building,
but you can't be absolutely
sure that they're dead.
And if they're dead...
They disagree on details,
but they know these ancient insects
are key players in
habitats across the world.
In this ecosystem,
they are the main agents
for the breakdown of dead vegetation.
The soil is baked by the sun,
and things like bacteria and fungi
can't live near the surface at all.
Termites help this arid land bear fruit,
but often, there's no
visible sign of them.
It's hard to study them,
because they don't like being exposed,
so a lot of my work is reconstructive.
Termite research is like archaeology,
excavating buried cities,
drawing conclusions from the
evidence of abandoned sites.
Open up a termite mound,
and the termites disappear
deep underground as though
they'd never been there,
but there's one group of termites
that has nowhere to go,
because they can't move,
and the challenge is to observe them
without destroying their home,
the inner sanctum,
the queen's chamber.
So, this is the queen's home.
The queen,
huge, super productive,
mother of every individual
in a city numbering 1,000,000,
together forming a
single super-organism.
Immediately, her attendants scurry
to wall up the opening Joanna has made.
The sudden changes in
temperature, humidity,
and brightness, have
sent them into a panic,
but it's an orderly one.
Her workers have plenty of water ready
to produce instant cement,
even in this dry place.
Soldiers' powerful jaws
guard the shrinking gap,
ready to repel intruders.
For a few seconds, the researchers
have glimpsed the heart of
a termite super-organism,
or rather, it's womb,
the very source of a colony's life.
In many countries, termites are feared,
hated, and hunted down.
They can be a few centimeters away
and you'd never know,
unless you call in the professionals.
Got a little bit more activity here.
We got some drywood termite,
some pellets right there.
To crawl under the house
and squeeze into impossible corners.
There they are.
We have to treat this beam here.
It's the same indoors.
Cut that beam open,
and you're in for a shock.
Wonder if we could get the whole beam.
To these critters,
your house isn't a home,
it's and all-you-can-eat diner.
They'll take everything they can get.
What are termites?
Some folks call them white ants.
They couldn't be more wrong.
Ants have been around
as long as termites,
and like termites,
they're social insects,
but unlike termites,
many are carnivores.
Other insects are
frequently on the menu.
Ants evolved from wasps.
Termites, on the other hand,
are descended from cockroaches,
and they're strictly vegetarian.
In fact, termites will eat everything
from lichen to dead wood.
That's one of the
secrets of their success.
They're a lot more than just pests.
Let's take a trip via
computer tomography
through the gut of a drywood termite.
It's built to process
cellulose and lignin,
the tough materials
surrounding plant cells.
The termite bites off
small fragments of wood,
first, these are softened,
then they're shredded,
and all that happens
in just one millimeter.
Let's go back inside.
The fibers are squeezed
on through the tract,
until they reach a special gut,
a kind of a paunch,
containing single-celled organisms,
called flagellates,
that break down cellulose.
Flagellates make up a third
of a termite's body weight.
Without these flagellates,
termites would starve.
They extract enormous amounts
of energy from the cellulose,
and pass it on to the termite,
leaving just a few tiny crumbs of feces
that you may never even notice.
A family like this can
live happily in a house
for years without any idea that
termites are on the attack,
Though the microscopic signs are there,
and the sounds.
Here in Kenya, termites
are part of the landscape.
People respect their monumental mounds.
Farmers protect them,
even when they're right in
the middle of their fields.
A tractor occasionally
runs over a termite tunnel.
The tunnels reach well beyond
the visible part of the nest.
This is a young adult,
almost ready to leave the colony
and found a new one.
Termites try to stay underground,
but to find a mate and a suitable site
for a new colony,
they have to emerge into the open air,
usually at night.
It's the riskiest moment of their lives.
Farmers like the highly productive
moist soil around the mounds.
Whatever helps them grow
food here is welcome.
8,500 kilometers away,
on the island of Borneo,
the climate looks made for termites.
The rain forest is
constantly humid, warm,
and well-shaded.
This is probably the sort of habitat
where termites originated.
These species have it made.
No need to stay underground
out of the heat,
or dig deep for water.
For their nests,
they have hollow tree trunks.
Unlike their drywood
termite cousins in America,
these termites don't eat
the timber they live in,
so they have to launch
food-gathering forays
every ten days.
Scouts have identified a harvesting site
and mapped out an ideal route
through the congested landscape.
A gland on the scout's abdomen
lays a pheromone track
for the others to follow.
Their dark chitin shell allows them
some exposure to sunlight.
This is where the harvesters go to work,
a patch of lichen clinging to a tree,
up to 100 meters from the nest.
That's 15 kilometers on a human scale.
These harvesters,
young worker termites with
their small, sharp jaws,
won't eat anything out here.
They'll scratch, graze,
and gather all they can
at a frantic pace,
because the entire army
is operating to a schedule.
In less than 30 minutes,
this trunk is scraped clean.
Time to hand over to the transporters,
a division of labor established
a hundred million years ago.
This one will wait until
he has his full load,
and then he's off.
The harvesters and
transportation workers
suddenly know it's time
to be getting back,
unless they get side-tracked.
The crinkly white paste
on the pitcher plant's rim
is termite caviar,
enough to distract them
from an entire lichen tree.
But the rim and the
inside of the pitcher
are super slippery.
A single plant with several pitchers
can fill up with thousands of termites,
that it slowly digests.
The termites bring home half a kilo
of raw plant material
to feed a million termites
for about ten days.
Perfect organization
without any organizer.
But being out in the open is risky,
and the biggest risk is dehydration.
That means sunny spots must be crossed
as fast as possible.
Gaps in the canopy are a problem.
Logging is a disaster.
Termites have softer
exoskeletons than ants.
Keep 'em in the sun too long,
and they boil.
When the sun comes out,
they huddle in the shadows,
or they put on a burst of
speed to get home fast.
These termites prefer to exit
in the morning or afternoon,
when the sun is warming up
or cooling down.
Their thin skins also can't cope
with cold fog and rain.
The rain clouds pass,
the march goes on.
This expedition has gone well,
with no predator attacks.
The losses to the carnivorous plants
will go unnoticed.
Once back at base, the colony
will stay underground for 10 days,
processing the harvest,
tending to the brood.
Back in America,
the war on termites continues.
You can poison them,
gas them,
or zap them.
But there's only one problem.
However efficiently a
building is cleansed,
right next door, in the back yard,
a new generation of
termites may be emerging,
primed to re-invade.
In this war,
termites outnumber humans.
In east Africa, the same is true,
but here, termites aren't seen as pests.
This gigantic, single-vent termite mound
says it all.
Termites dominate life here.
On a human scale, this tower
would be 1,700 meters high.
They have to build high
in order to get the ventilation system
to work efficiently.
So basically, the denser
and higher the trees,
the taller the mounds get.
But it's quite impressive, isn't it?
To see a colony building a new vent,
Jo and Reinhard have to
put in a night shift.
This mound is still a construction site.
They need a gentle light source
to see the termites
without disturbing them.
An infrared camera will let Reinhard
record the colony's activity.
Tens of thousands of builders bring up
clay and water from deep underground.
In the short run, these termites
are mining building materials.
In the long run, the minerals
they fetch from the deep
enrich the top soil.
They mix the clay in their jaws
with water they carry in their bodies.
To find it, these
termites may dig shafts
all the way down to the groundwater,
60 meters or more below the surface.
The work is hectic, but it's orderly,
and it never stops.
The mound is living, eating,
and breathing like one huge animal.
The comparison with an
animal is a good one.
The breath of a termite colony
is nearly as warm as a mammal's.
It's also super-saturated with moisture,
reflecting the internal
climate of the nest.
When a rare shower cools the air,
you can see the vent steaming.
By first light, this vent has grown
by half a meter.
It's not finished yet.
Later, all the gaps will be filled.
The termites regulate the flow of gases
so the queen's chamber stays
at 30 degrees centigrade,
and close to 100% humidity.
This mound
is alive
and breathing.
But not all mounds
breathe in the same way,
as Jo Darlington discovers.
The difference is mostly
in the ventilation systems.
The different species have chosen
to use different ways of
ventilating the mound.
This one's smoking very actively,
and that one and that one,
and this one's coming up too.
What counts here is the difference
between the top holes
and the bottom holes,
because the wind is stronger
the further above the ground you get,
so that the high holes suck air
into the low holes, and it
passes through the mound.
To live in this dry, hot climate,
termites need air conditioning.
But these vents don't just
keep a termite mound cool.
They also expel waste gases,
carbon dioxide and methane.
Not break it.
Mounds with a single vent
are especially valuable
to Joanna and Reinhard.
They can use them to measure
how much gas is released,
and that helps them estimate the number
of termites living in a single mound.
You have to be careful when
dismantling a heavy vent.
This was built to last.
Multiply the figures from one mound
by the number of mounds in the savanna,
and you could theoretically work out
how much greenhouse
gas, especially methane,
Africa's termites release
into the atmosphere.
Get it right,
and you know the contribution
termites make to global warming.
But it isn't an exact science yet.
We can't make any meaningful estimate
of the biomass of termites.
We have figures for which termites
produce how much methane,
but we just don't know
how big their population,
how big their biomass, is.
So yes, they are a contributor,
but we don't know how big.
It's easier with something like cattle.
Cattle contribute in the same way.
It's the intestines, in both cases,
which produce methane
as a metabolic waste product.
But whereas with cows
it's relatively easy
to count the heads and work
out how many there are,
and so how much methane they produce,
with termites, we don't know.
We think there are lots of them,
but we don't what their biomass is.
We need to know more about them.
Hacking into the base of the mound
reveals the passages of
the subterranean city.
Stragglers from a termite nursery
are the last to scurry to safety.
Once again, entomologists
become archaeologists
as their live objects of interest
disappear before their eyes.
While Jo and Reinhard
investigate their Kenya colony,
another termite colony is receiving
a lot less attention.
It takes a child's sensitive ears
to pick it up at all.
What is that tapping sound?
Thank you.
You're welcome.
Want some orange juice?
- Yes.
- Here.
Some more.
I heard like, this noise last night
in the wall.
What kinda noise was it?
I dunno, it was like a,.
It was probably just the Boogey Man.
You sure you weren't dreaming?
Yeah, I'm sure.
Danny wasn't dreaming,
but this is a nightmare.
Bye, Rose.
Bye, Rose!
Finding someone as thorough
as Rose these days is rare.
But all she's doing here
is clearing up the evidence.
Drywood termites have an old saying,
"My home is my dinner."
No excursions to distant food sources,
no exposure to hostile eyes,
working from home is so efficient,
you can be truly relentless.
So relentless, in fact,
that termites cause more damage
to homes across the world
than hurricanes, fires,
and floods combined,
more than $20,000,000,000 a year.
Here, the next generation
is about to go forth and multiply.
The sexual caste is
already growing its wings.
In a few days, thousands
of them will emerge
into the light, meet, fly away,
and start new colonies.
Over in the tropical zones,
the biomass of termites,
their total weight, is immense.
And yet, to the casual visitor,
they can be almost invisible
in the forest floor's
kaleidoscope of browns.
This termite species have found a way
to even out the vastly
different surfaces
they have to cross to
reach a food source.
Where the gaps or height differences
between leaves and twigs
become too great,
they build roads,
and tunnels,
with sand and earth gathered
from the forest floor,
another form of termite concrete.
The use it to construct a
direct route to the food,
saving time and energy.
It's a super highway
taking rush hour traffic
through the most difficult
and complex terrain.
Pheromone trails regulate the traffic
as smoothly as road
signs and traffic lights.
The tunnels are even designed
with one lane in each direction.
Soldiers line the entire route,
facing outwards,
sniffing for danger.
These are a big-bodied caste,
their heads converted
into chemical guns.
Their antennas scan the air.
The forest is full of risk.
Closer to home,
the engineered roads and tunnels
become still broader.
Nothing impedes their forward march.
Workers cutting up dried
leaves to take to the nest.
The detritus they leave behind rots away
and helps new plant growth
on the forest floor.
Cutting up dried leaves is hard work.
It takes two hours to
make a leaf disappear,
and this termite species
eats only leaves.
We're only just starting to understand
the termite's role in
the planet's ecosystems,
but it looks as though
they have a positive effect
on the lives of almost
all plants and animals.
So instead of focusing on extermination,
some researchers are beginning to think
we should be protecting termites
all over the world.
Through 150,000,000 years of evolution,
termite species have learned to process
any kind of vegetation,
dead or alive, into food.
That adaptability has
been their great strength.
And with their perfect social systems,
termites should effortlessly
dominate their environment.
But here, in the jungles of Borneo,
there is a predator.
Tucked up in the dry leaves,
it looks like a snake.
As it stretches out, you might
mistake it for an armadillo.
But the only thing it has
in common with armadillos
is that, like an armadillo,
it's not a reptile,
it's a mammal.
This is a pangolin.
The pangolin has long claws
to break into termites' nests,
where it uses its sticky tongue
to lap up the insects wholesale.
Today, the termites are lucky.
An ant colony is paying the
bill for the pangolin's dinner.
But termites don't just face
a threat from pangolins.
These soldiers are scanning
for a very different enemy
that they can't see, but may soon sense.
A platoon of weaver ants has
targeted the termite column.
Their scouts have chosen
the perfect ambush site.
An ant patrol inches
toward the termite highway.
The worker termites seem too busy
to notice the danger.
Some of the termite soldiers
have picked up the hostile scent,
but they may not leave
their sentry posts.
The ants spend time scouting out a gap
in the termites' defense line.
Finally, they opt for a head-on assault.
The termites are not defenseless.
The tiny termite gunner has aimed well.
It tries to wipe off
the acid spray in vain.
Termite soldiers launch
a counter-assault
and engage the enemy in a skirmish.
A few ants manage to retreat
with piece of termite
booty in their jaws,
but the tiny defenders
have stood their ground,
thanks to their chemical weapons.
Across the globe, in the savanna,
another ant army is on the move.
This time, it will be
more than a skirmish.
The advance is fast and focused,
led by a single scout.
They fan out from their nest
in three parallel columns,
each two meters long.
These ants are like bloodhounds,
hot on the scent.
They exist to hunt termites.
There's no escape.
These savanna termites
have no secret weapons.
Outnumbered like this, their size
and fearsome jaws are no advantage.
The ants drag termite
bodies back to their nest,
retracing the lines of their advance.
Biologist Jo Darlington has watched
plenty of these campaigns from above.
She never ceases to
wonder at two insect types
that can be so similar,
and yet so different.
Well, ants and termites, between them,
are the most successful
of all the land insects.
We think they're the
first social insects,
but the fossil record
is very incomplete.
But, although there are
a lot of parallelisms,
they're actually not related at all.
They're an example of
convergent evolution,
where different stocks have
solved the same problem
in parallel ways.
Jo continues her work to calculate
the biomass of the
termites in the savanna.
She maps out all the
mounds in a defined area.
I feel the sand, the edge?
You feel for the edge of the mound.
In this direction.
Here, here?
Hold it up.
GPS ready.
Two termite species
live side by side here.
One builds mounds.
The other lives completely underground.
But this species comes out at night.
They spread out over the savanna,
gathering vegetation,
dragging far more than their own weight.
The ground is dotted
with tiny access holes,
sealed by day, leading to the tunnels
the termites have dug around their nest.
They radiate up to 35
meters from the nest
in a dense network.
A single nest can have
six kilometers of tunnels.
Termites remove dead
grass and woody litter,
reducing the risk of catastrophic
fires in the dry season.
Back in the nest, the termites
will eat this plant detritus.
These termites are able
to break down cellulose
like their American cousins.
Other species eject the
chewed and wizened cellulose
as raw feces, which will later
be used to farm a fungus.
That's what the termites
in this mound do.
These Maasai women have never looked
inside a termites' mound before.
But Reinhard has installed a window
to observe a fungus garden.
These termites are working
on the fungus garden,
or comb.
Worker termites build up the
structure over several weeks,
with layer on layer of feces.
The fungus comb produces
white spores, called conidia.
The workers swallow these spores
and excrete them with more feces,
further enriching the fungus.
This is the main source of food
for all the termites in the mound.
Thus, the fungus
guarantees the existence
of an entire termite species,
and it all depends on the
temperature and the humidity
being exactly right.
For these Maasai women, a
fascinating first glimpse
of the insects that keep
their lands fertile.
For people in California
and the southern U.S.A.,
the only good termite is a dead termite.
As desperate homeowners call in
the termite terminators,
houses are fumigated from top
to bottom with poison gas.
Climate control in single
buildings in whole cities
has helped termites stray
way beyond their original habitats,
right across America, Australia,
and parts of Europe and Asia.
Getting rid of them is big business.
But not even this is enough
to guarantee success.
In Kenya, Jo and Reinhard
are nearing their goal
of reaching the queen's chamber,
the inner sanctum.
What do you think about this one?
At last, they found a suitable mound
to work with.
It's a little bit damaged
a bit by the rain, but...
They've sealed off the entrance.
There is a good shade here.
It's easy enough to remove
the queen's chamber,
but opening it up without
destroying the colony
is a very delicate task.
It must be turned upside down.
Where is the soldier,
have you got his place?
No, it fell down.
I didn't, unless it's in there.
Maybe there it's there...
Jo and Reinhard have been waiting
a long time for this moment,
but they must be very careful.
If the soldiers get nervous,
they might attack the queen.
Very sure.
Well, she should be lying,
she should be lying in
the hole of the roof,
so she should be safe.
I want to look down,
there are big soldiers going already.
They probably will be alright,
it's just sometimes
they desert the colony
and damage the queen.
We can do it this way.
This is the moment of truth.
Three queens, there's a king.
Oh, the king.
Not one queen,
but three.
I've never seen queens before.
There's the other king.
The king, just one centimeter long,
fertilizes the queen all her life,
up to 30 years.
Where do you want to put them?
Now, well, we take the largest
and put in the queen's cell.
Reinhard has brought a laboratory
out to the savanna.
He hopes that a queen, her king,
their workers, and their brood,
will behave naturally in
an artificial chamber.
The tubes linking the
chambers to the nest
are coated with pheromone trails,
to encourage the workers to keep
looking after their queen.
So at least there is
no big soldier inside.
That's most important.
The two remaining queens
and their king are returned to the nest.
Make it as level as you can.
Don't press it too hard,
'cause it's got live termites in.
At least a chance of
finding their way back.
For many years, researchers
have tried similar setups,
gradually refining the technique,
but it's notoriously difficult to film
natural termite behavior
in a queen's chamber.
There goes the king.
Together with the queen.
The cell must be protected
from the heat and light of the sun
as quickly as possible.
Now these we have to select first.
I cover it first with this.
Now, the connecting tubes
are linked to the natural
chamber back in the mound.
It's a tense moment.
If the queen is stressed,
the soldiers and workers
will immediately kill her.
Put the stones again, please.
Now there will be a long wait.
Will the queen and her workers
return to their routine,
feeding, egg-laying,
and tending the brood?
Even with all Jo's and
Reinhard's experience,
they still need luck on their side.
The queen and the workers
don't seem to be disturbed.
The workers are still tending to her,
and the queen keeps producing eggs,
hundreds every hour.
All eggs are born equal.
Whether they turn into
workers or soldiers
depends on the food they're given.
Sensitive to disturbance in the savanna,
resistant to shifting in the suburbs,
it pays to pay attention to termites.
So wherever you live,
take a good look at your
home every now and then,
and have a careful listen too.
It might spare you a big surprise.