Studies of African Mound-Building Termites

Termite Mound

African species of mound building termites display one of the most impressive examples of scalable and robust coordination, where millions of simple insects coordinate to build mounds many orders of magnitude the size of the individuals. The termites have proven notoriously hard to study, they prefer their underground dwellings, and are very susceptible to disturbances. We are developing a new set of software and hardware tools to help entomologists in the field uncover how these insects manage to produce such complex global behavior. Our hope is that these will significantly advance our conception of robot swarms as well.


The toolset includes software to automatically track and label the behavior of termites in confined experimental arenas, 3D scanners for continuous observation of termite construction ex-situ, and in-situ setups to compare the alarm response time across different species and colonies. We are especially interested in the role cement-pheromone plays in coordination of construction, and the possibility of task allocation in termites. The data we extract is critical to refine underdeveloped models of termite coordination, and to inform the design of equally scalable and adaptable artificial swarms in the future.

This project started in the SSR Lab at Harvard University, 2011-2014.


K. Petersen, N. Napp, J. Chin-Lee, J. Werfel, and R. Nagpal, “3D Tracking of Building Processes in Macrotermes,” VAIB workshop, Intl. Conference on Pattern Recognition, 2012.

K. Petersen et al., “Arrestant property of recently manipulated soil on Macrotermes michaelseni as determined through visual tracking and automatic labeling of individual termite behaviors.” Journal of Behavioral Processes, vol. 116: 8-11, 2015.