Blogging My Biology Class 20080825 The Termite Lab

Biology, Eighth Edition, by Campbell & Reece, et al.

Biology, Eighth Edition, by Campbell & Reece, et al.

My notes and thoughts from Biology 111, for Monday, August 25, 2008. The entire series can be found here.

Lab on Monday was another really fascinating demonstration of the Scientific Method. We even got to play with real live bugs – termites, to be specific. The college keeps a colony of them, which is just cool in and of itself.

So the lab opened with Doc having us split into groups of three and four again, and then handed out a blank sheet of white paper to each group, along with a red ball-point pen and a small paint brush. Each group was instructed to make a circle on the paper using the red pen.

Then the fun part started.

Doc walked around to each group with a little tupperware container, beginning with our group. When she saw what he had in the tupperware, my female lab parter immediately got a little squicked out. Termites!

Just seeing her squirm was worth the price of admission, but by the end of the lab she was fine, as long as she didn’t have to touch them with her hand. Fortunately for her, that’s what the paintbrush was for. Once the termite was on the paper, the paintbrush was for wrangling the termite without squishing him. All we had to do was make sure he didn’t wander off the paper.

So I had the paintbrush, because Squicky Britches was still icking out, and all of a sudden, something totally unexpected happened.

(Continued below the fold.)

Our little termite had begun to follow the red line in a circle! He was like a little NASCAR driver, in a continuous left turn.

We started hollering at the other groups, telling them all about how brilliant our little termite (who I’d named Fred) was. About that time, other groups were still receiving their termites, and everyone was standing or craning to check out our little prodigy.

Then one at a time, other termites began to find the red circles, and sure enough, they started racing around their own little tracks.

Doc let us just be fascinated for a while, which was way cool of him. I don’t think anyone in the room was anything short of amazed at this behavior. Eventually though, it was time to get to work. What was causing this behavior in the termites? Our mission, whether we chose to accept it or not, was to figure it out.

Observation:

Given a white sheet of paper with a red circle in ball-point ink and a live termite, the termite tends to follow the red line. A second termite (who we named Ginger, though my lab partners are much too young to understand the significance) exhibits the same behavior.

Question:

What causes the termites to tend to follow the red line?

Hypotheses:

We formed four hypotheses in the beginning, the testing of which is the focus of this lab.

  • Hypothesis #1) The termite prefers to travel in a circle.
  • Hypothesis #2) The termite is attracted to the color red.
  • Hypothesis #3) The termite is attracted to a chemical in the ink.
  • Hypothesis #4) The termite is following the indentation in the paper made by the pressure of the pen.

Testing Hypothesis #1

  • Prediction: Using the original red ink pen, a square is drawn, and if the termite simply prefers to travel in circles, then it will not follow the square.
  • Observation: The termite follows the square, though it has a little trouble with the corners at first.
  • Conclusion: The termite does not simply prefer to travel in a circle, and the hypothesis is falsified.

Testing Hypothesis #2

  • Prediction: Using a black ball-point pen, a circle is drawn and if the termite is attracted to the color red, then it will not follow the black circle.
  • Observation: The termite follows the black circle even better than it follows the red circle.
  • Conclusion: The termite is not simply attracted to the color red, and the hypothesis is falsified.

Testing Hypothesis #3

  • Prediction: Using a colored pencil, a circle is drawn and if the termite is attracted to a chemical in the ball-point ink, then it will not follow the circle.
  • Observation: The termite does not follow the circle at all, and basically ignores the circle completely, crossing its path many times.
  • Conclusion: The termite might be attracted to a chemical in the ball-point ink that is not present in a colored pencil, and the hypothesis is supported by the evidence.

Testing Hypothesis #4

  • Prediction: Using the tip of a pen cap, a circle is drawn without making a visible mark, and if the termite does not follow the circle, then it is not simply following the indentation in the paper made by the pressure of the pen.
  • Observation: The termite does not follow the circle at all, and basically ignores the circle completely, crossing its path many times.
  • Conclusion: The termite is not simply following the indentation in the paper made by the pressure of the pen, and the hypothesis is falsified.

At this point, we were fairly confident that we were on the right track. It was time for our break, so Doc passed out little covered petri dishes to each group with pieces of wet paper towels in them. We put Fred and Ginger into our dish, and went for our break. Fred was not looking very good at this point, and seemed to need a rest from all that racing around he’d been doing, so the timing worked out pretty well.

While on break, it occurred to us that we might want to find out exactly what it was in the ink that termites found attractive, but one of the rules to the lab was that we could use anything in the room to test our hypotheses, but nothing else.

Upon returning from break, we asked Doc if we might have another termite, as Fred was looking rather peaked. He happily obliged us, and we tested various other writing implements to observe the behavior of our new termite. Our new termite really zipped around the circle made by Squicky Britches’ black bic pen, so we named him Speedy.

It then occurred to us to check another black ball-point, to see if there might be some inks the termites preferred over others. Sure enough, Speedy showed a definite preference for Squicky Britches’ bic over my zebra.

Thinking about the ink and the petri dishes, we wondered if the attractive chemical might be just moisture, plain old H2O in the ink.

  • Hypothesis #5) The termite is attracted to the moisture content of the ball-point ink.

Testing Hypothesis #5

  • Prediction: Using the tip of a mechanical pencil dipped in bottled water, a circle is drawn, and if the termite does not follow the circle, it is not simply attracted to the moisture content of the ball-point ink.
  • Observation: The termite does not follow the circle at all, and actually seems to avoid the dampness left on the paper.
  • Conclusion: The termite is not simply attracted to the moisture content of the ball-point ink, and the hypothesis is falsified.

We talked a bit with Doc about our experiment to this point, and he reminded us that we were allowed to use anything in the lab to test our hypothesis further. Looking around, Squicky Britches (who was so wrapped up in termite wrangling at this point that she wasn’t squicky at all) noticed the transparency papers that Doc had lying on the other end of the lab table. As a control measure, we drew a fresh circle on fresh paper with Squicky Britches’ bic, and retested Speedy on that circle. As expected, he followed the circle without a problem.

Further testing of Hypothesis #3

  • Prediction: When a circle is drawn and the termite is separated from the paper by a transparency film, if the termite follows the circle, then it is not simply attracted to a chemical in the ball-point ink.
  • Observation: After anthor control in which the termite followed a fresh circle directly on a fresh paper, the termite did not follow the same circle when separated from the paper by a sheet of transparency film.
  • Conclusion: The termite might be attracted to a chemical in the ball-point ink, and the hypothesis is still supported by the evidence.

So this was another really fun lab for us to practice our Scientific Method skills. Sadly, I don’t think Fred survived it.

From whence came the art:

The first image is of our textbook, Biology, Eighth Edition, by Campbell & Reese et al.

7 Responses to “Blogging My Biology Class 20080825 The Termite Lab”

  1. Jade Says:

    Hey, I am in 9th grade and guess what I did this same exact project in Biology class a few days ago and I am doing homework on it now and yes its attracted to the chemicals

  2. Lou FCD Says:

    Hi Jade!

    It’s very cool that you’re doing this in your high school biology class. I think this is a great experiment, and when I’m teaching 9th grade biology, I’ll definitely be having my students doing this one.

    Thanks for your comment, I hope you drop back by here!

  3. Lou FCD Says:

    Oh, and P.S.

    Yes, the termite is attracted to a chemical in the ink. It turns out that there is a compound in the ink that closely resembles a termite pheromone. So, when he’s following the ink, he’s thinking he’s hot on the trail of some steamy termite love.

    🙂

  4. Lin Says:

    I just did this experiment in my Biology class too. In fact, I’m writing my lab report right now. I had so much fun playing around with our termites. But our termites followed the red ink more so than the black ink…hmmm I wonder why?

  5. Lou FCD Says:

    Sounds like another experiment is in order, Lin! 🙂

    I’m glad you enjoyed that experiment. I certainly did.

  6. Ritesh Says:

    Hi,
    I read your experiment & found it very interesting, hope this will be an exciting and adventurous experiment for biology class for our student as well.

  7. Lou FCD Says:

    I hope your students find it as fascinating and instructive as I did, Ritesh!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: