Lab 1 – Termite Trails and The Scientific Method


PowerPoint Presentation

Learning Objectives

After completing this activity, students will be able to –

  1. Recognize the parts of The Scientific Method.
  2. Describe why there are certain procedures we follow in lab, ie. only manipulating one variable, avoiding contamination, using proper equipment, etc.
  3. Recognize why “thinking like a scientist” will help students to better understand the world around them.
  4. Demonstrate the difference between a hypothesis and a scientific theory.

Background Information

The Scientific Method

The Scientific Method has some certain characteristics, but it is never set in stone. We, as scientists, can ask questions at any point. We are always researching and learning. We make conclusions and analyze data as it becomes available.  As long as we are always thinking and asking questions, we are using The Scientific Method.



Ask a Question

The Scientific Method starts when you ask a question about something that you observe: How, What, When, Who, Which, Why, or Where?

In order for the scientific method to answer the question, it must be about something that you can measure, preferably with a number.

We know that termites are able to follow one another in the wild, despite being completely blind. How are they able to do that?

Do Background Research

Rather than starting from scratch in putting together a plan for answering your question, you want to be a savvy scientist and use library and Internet research to help you find the best way to do things and ensure that you don’t repeat mistakes from the past.

In this lab, understanding what we already know about termites will help us to ask better questions.

Construct a Hypothesis

A hypothesis is an educated guess about how things work. In order to test hypotheses, we often put them in a form of a prediction:

“If [I do this] , then [this] will happen.”

For example:

If I increase the amount of root hormone, then the roots will grow faster than the control.

If I decrease the amount of root hormone, then the roots will grow more slowly than the control.

If I increase the amount of sunlight, the plant will grow taller than the control.

If I decrease the amount of sunlight, the plant will grow more slowly than the control.

You must state your hypothesis in a way that you can easily measure, and of course, your hypothesis should be constructed in a way to help you answer your original question.

What is your hypothesis/prediction?

Test Your Hypothesis by Doing an Experiment

Your experiment tests whether your hypothesis is true or false. It is important for your experiment to be a fair test. You conduct a fair test by making sure that you change only one factor at a time while keeping all other conditions the same.

You should also repeat your experiments several times to make sure that the first results weren’t just an accident.

Analyze Your Data and Draw a Conclusion

Once your experiment is complete, you will collect your measurements and analyze them to see if your hypothesis is supported or not.

Scientists often find that their hypothesis was not supported, and in such cases they will construct a new hypothesis starting the entire process of the scientific method over again. Even if they find that their hypothesis was supported, they may want to test it again in a new way.

What have you concluded about the termite’s behavior?

Communicate Your Results

The process of science is not complete until the results are shared.


Reticulitermes flavipes

The termites used in this experiment are not dangerous. You should use care when handling them, however. Be careful not to drop them on the floor or squish them.

From the Wikipedia page about termites:

Reticulitermes flavipes, the eastern subterranean termite is the most common termite found in North America.[1] These termites are the most economically important wood destroying insects in the United States and are classified as pests.[1] They feed on cellulose material such as the structural wood in buildings, wooden fixtures, paper, books and cotton. A mature colony can range from 20,000 workers to as high as 5 million workers and the primary queen of the colony lays 5,000 to 10,000 eggs per year to add to this total.[1]

The termites used in this experiment are a group of social insects classified as order Isoptera. The name Isoptera, derived from the Greek “iso” meaning equal and “ptera” meaning wings, refers to the similar size, shape, and venation of the four wings. As truly social animals, they are termed eusocial along with the ants and some bees.

Termites mostly feed on dead plant material, generally in the form of wood, leaf litter, soil, or animal dung.

Only 10% of the estimated 4,000 species are economically significant as pests that can cause serious structural damage to buildings, crops, or forests.

Termites are major detritivores, (decompose organic matter) particularly in the subtropical and tropical regions, and their recycling of wood and other plant matter is of considerable ecological importance.

What are some of the common characteristics of eusocial insects?

Termites live in colonies that number from several hundred to several million individuals. They are a prime example of decentralized, self-organized systems using swarm intelligence and use this cooperation to exploit food sources and environments that could not be available to any single insect acting alone.

A typical colony contains nymphs (semi-mature young), workers, soldiers, and reproductive individuals of both genders, sometimes containing several egg-laying queens.

How do you think swarm intelligence works? What are some other insects you can think of that swarm? Why might this help them survive?

Worker termites undertake the labors of foraging, food storage, brood, nest maintenance, and some of the defense effort in certain species. Termite workers are generally blind due to undeveloped eyes. Despite this limitation, they are able to create elaborate nests and tunnel systems using a combination of soil, chewed wood/cellulose, saliva, and feces.

How would a blind insect know where it is going? How would they create an elaborate underground nest?


  • Paper (white printer paper, or the back of recycled plain white paper)
  • Variety of pens, pencils, other writing utensils
  • Petri dish with termites (Reticulitermes)
  • Soft-bristle paintbrush (gentle way to move the termites)


  1. Draw a circle on a piece of paper with a pencil. Your circle should be approximately 10 cm in diameter.
  2. Tap a single termite out of the Petri dish into the circle drawn on your paper and observe the termite’s movements. (Do not allow the termite to fall off the paper.
    You may tap the bottom of the paper to move the termite towards the center of the paper, or pick up the edges of the paper. If the termite does fall off the paper, gently swipe the paper under the termite. Do not use your fingers, or the termite may be flattened!)
  3. Use the worksheet as a guide to record your observations, ask questions, and conduct an experiment. Test different writing utensils (pens, Sharpies®, markers) or shapes (different variables). Note the termite’s behavior each time you change a variable.
  4. When you are done experimenting, return your termite in the Petri dish to the lab instructor.

Lab Videos

1. Termites – Life’s Ultimate Architects

Uploaded on Mar 1, 2006


  • Accuracy – A description of how close a measurement is to the true value of the quantity measured.
  • Conclusion – A summary based on evidence or facts
  • Contamination – Becoming non-sterile by contact with any non-sterile material
  • Controlled experiment – An experiment in which only one variable is manipulated at a time.
  • Data – Facts and statistics collected together for reference or analysis
  • Dependent variable – Factor being measured
  • Descriptions – Qualitative data
  • Eusocial – highly specialized sociality generally including 1. Individuals of more than one generation living together 2. Cooperative care of young, and 3. Division of individuals into sterile, or non-reproductive and reproductive castes
  • Experiment – A research method in which an investigator manipulates one or more factors to observe the effect on some behavior or mental process
  • Hypothesis – A possible explanation for a set of observations or answer to a scientific question; must be testable
  • Independent variable – Factor being changed
  • Inferences – Drawing conclusion from evidence
  • Observations – Information gathered by noticing facts and occurrences using your five senses.
  • Patterns – recurring characteristics or events
  • Precision – Describes the closeness, or reproducibility, of a set of measurements taken under the same conditions.
  • Prediction – A specific suggestion about the outcome of a particular process or the effect of a particular case
  • Qualitative – Data in the form of recorded descriptions rather than numerical measurements.
  • Quantitative – Data that is measurable; observations based on numbers
  • Scientific theory – A well tested concept that explains a wide range of observations
  • Swarm intelligence – collective behavior of groups of simple agents that are capable of devising solutions to problems as they arise

Flashcards – Study for Your Lab Practical

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