There’s an anime-style visual novel/role-playing video game called Long Live the Queen, in which you play a 14-year-old princess named Elodie whose mother, the Queen, only recently passed away under suspicious circumstances. Your objective is to make it through the next 40 weeks so you can be coronated and officially named the queen of a fictional country called Nova.
How do you, Elodie the Princess, increase your chances of survival, I hear you ask? Well. Each day Elodie must attend two classes, learning important skills across topics as diverse as foreign affairs, military strategy, weapons-handling, falconry, magic, local history, and my personal favourite - decoration, which basically means learning how to string colourful ribbons around a ballroom properly. How scared, lonely, happy, or yielding you happen to be feeling at the time will determine how good you are at your lessons.
If you’re not careful, you’ll end up with a sword in the gut thanks to the string of disgruntled distant relatives and jilted suiters you leave in your rather clueless wake, all of which is in service of a very important and overarching message - it’s not easy being queen.
Now, it’s safe to say Her Majesty the Termite Queen up there doesn’t take dog-handling lessons. She doesn’t wake up early to partake in an international intrigue class, followed by lunch, followed by public speaking and battlefield medicine. The Termite Queen is probably not trying to better herself through the art of ballroom dancing. But you know what she is good at? Making babies.
A termite queen will produce one egg every three seconds, averaging about 30,000 eggs PER DAY. That’s 10,950,000 eggs per year. And when you take into account the fact that a termite queen will often live till she’s 20 years old, that means 219,000,000 eggs, just from one single little insect. So that lumpy little lady above = almost a quarter of a billion babies.
She wasn’t always a morbidly obese, custardy baby-making machine, tasked with ensuring the continued growth of an entire colony. That termite queen was once a young, svelte virgin with a delicate pair of wings. New termite colonies are formed when virgin females emerge from their birth-colony’s mound - which can in some species reach 6 metres in height - fly around for a bit, land, and start scratching off her own wings. "One moment we see her with her wings intact and the next moment she steps away and her wings are lying in the grass," South African naturalist Eugene Marias wrote in his 1937 book The Soul of the White Ant. "She's much, much quicker than a woman who discards her evening gown and hangs it over a chair."
Once wingless, the virgin female will wander around, hoping to find a male. If she does, the pair will create a tiny, underground burrow and start mating like crazy to fill it. He will be the king and she will be the queen of a brand new colony. Throughout her lifespan, the queen’s ovipositor - her egg-laying organ - will extend immensely, forcing her entire body to stretch from a mere 17 millimetres to about the length of your index finger. That's at least 100 times bigger than anyone else in the colony. One queen in particular did even better that that, growing to a staggering 10 centimetres long, making her the the largest termite queen ever recorded.
Her now enormous yellow mass will pulsate constantly as it works to push egg after egg out into the world.
"This little male king sits next to this enormous female that can be several inches long, a ghastly thing," Mark Moffett, a Smithsonian Institute researcher and National Geographic photographer, told the Kitchen Sisters at NPR. "Even an entomologist like myself, who loves all creatures equally, is pretty startled when he sees a termite queen.”
Now not only will the termite queen soon become too fat to move - ever again - she’ll also start sweating profusely, thanks to all that hard baby-making work. While she’s still capable of producing eggs, her children will keep her clean by constantly licking the sweat from her body as an army of worker termites stack egg after freshly laid egg into neat little piles for hatching. Once their queen is so old she can no longer produce eggs, the tables will turn rather sharply, Moffett told the Kitchen Sisters. Instead of licking her gently, the termite queen's many children will eat her alive, growing strong on her nutritious juices.
And they’re gonna need them - once their queen dies, their entire colony will fall apart, and it’s up to her virgin daughters to fly off and start their own colonies, with nothing to look forward to except permanent immobility and juvenile licking parties.
A sword in the gut from a petulant duke doesn’t sound so bad after all.