Old termites go out with a bang! Or at least that’s what Neocapritermes taracua termites do, according to a study last week in Science.

Researchers studying these social insects noticed that when threatened, the insects actually explode. This isn’t unusual in termites; some species are known to rupture an organ when attacked, killing itself but saving the colony in an act called autothysis.

But further studies set N. taracua apart from its termite brethren. The scientists noticed that the most toxic and effective exploding members had blue “packs” on their backs.

The blue color comes from a protein containing copper, but that’s not the full picture when the termites explode, explains Ed Yong in Discover:

[Co-author Thomas] Bourguignon thinks that when the termite bursts, the coppery protein transforms otherwise harmless compounds in the salivary glands, and turns them toxic. “The toxicity of the blue workers is clearly the result of mixing compounds from two sources,” he says.

But these blue, explosive-packed termites are not the soldiers of the community, nor the young. Looking at the worn mandibles of the toxic insects, the researchers found that only aging workers had the blue-hued backs. Science News reports:

Their mouthparts gradually go dull with wear and tear, and their efficiency at feeding decreases. The more worn the mouthparts, the bigger the reserve of the toxin ingredient… So as their other contributions to the colony dwindle, older workers’ likelihood for self-sacrifice in battle increases.

Not only does this study make a great argument for older and wiser insects in the workforce, it also somewhat proves the Neil Young lyric, “It’s better to burn-out, than to fade away…”

Image: Robert Hanus

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