University Post
University of Copenhagen
Independent of management


Termites have had farms for millions of years

Most of our food production is based on large-scale cultivation of single crops. We have spent ten thousand years of cultural evolution adopting this practice. Research has now shown that farming ants and termites have been at it for a good millions of years longer

Food production in modern societies are mainly based on large-scale farming of one single crop at a time – a habit we have spent roughly ten thousand years adopting, and one that we still doubt is sustainable.

A recent publication in the journal Science proves that farming ants and termites are ahead of us by millions of years with their sustainable fungus farms.

This is according to the research news resource,

The study by Duur Aanen and Koos Boomsma of the Centre for Social Evolution at University of Copenhagen (U of C), and colleagues at the U of C and the Laboratory of Genetics of Wageningen University, is of importance to the field of mineral cycling and decomposition.

First garden

30 million years ago, termites would build vast mounds for their colonies, workers and soldiers in the African rainforest. They cultivated the aptly named African Termitomyces mushrooms, and subsequently became dependent on farming their own food.

Since their single rainforest origin, they are now comprised of about 330 species.

Colony-founding termite queens and kings do not normally get their own garden until they have raised their first workers. The workers then collect Termitomyces spores whilst foraging, and defecate plant material in the nest for the spores to flourish.

An unusual collaboration

The symbiosis between mushroom and termite is stable, strangely enough, despite the genetic varieties of the mushroom. Evolutionary theory predicts that the different genetic types would compete for making mushrooms, but a unique mechanism prevents this from happening.

The team genetically analysed colonies that had based their gardens on two or more genetically different spores, and found that they contained only a single fungal genotype.

The most prevalent fungal types had merged with their identical neighbours, eventually becoming the only kind in the garden. After that, they produce asexual spores that the termites eat and excrete for new garden material.

This process results in each colony having a lifelong commitment to a single breed of mushroom.

Browse our gallery of pictures by the researchers here

For the full text, sign up on Science’s website.