Just as humans may use naphthalene "moth balls" to fumigate their closets, termites may use naphthalene to protect their nests, according to a research group led by urban entomologist Gregg Henderson, Ph.D., at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. It is the first time that naphthalene has been associated with termites, he reports in the May 1 Web edition of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society.
A termite nest is a closed system which protects the termites in a microclimate that is controlled and different from that of the surrounding environment, Henderson says. As a soil-dwelling creature, Henderson notes, the termites confront many adversaries such as ants, fungus, bacteria, and nematodes. He believes that fumigating the nest with naphthalene and other volatile compounds may play an important role in inhibiting microorganisms and invertebrate invaders in the nest. Henderson and his postdoctoral researcher Jian Chen found this unusual chemical in termite nests collected from colonies infesting houses and trees in New Orleans and Lake Charles, La. But the source of the naphthalene remains a mystery. Although Henderson admits that it may be possible for some animals to make naphthalene, he points out that there is no direct evidence of naphthalene being made by any animal or microorganism. Since termites use soil, masticated wood, and excrement to make their nests, one possible source is in the processed food of the termites or the soil, Henderson speculates. Another possible origin, he says, is that microbes are making the naphthalene by acting on material in the termite nest, the gut, or on the food.
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