Cover image for Underbug : an obsessive tale of termites and technology / Lisa Margonelli.
Underbug : an obsessive tale of termites and technology / Lisa Margonelli.
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018.
Physical Description:
303 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.
Subject Term:


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
595.736 MAR Book Adult General Collection

On Order



The award-winning journalist Lisa Margonelli, national bestselling author of Oil on the Brain: Petroleum's Long, Strange Trip to Your Tank , investigates the environmental and economic impact termites inflict on human societies in this fascinating examination of one of nature's most misunderstood insects.

Are we more like termites than we ever imagined? In Underbug , the award-winning journalist Lisa Margonelli introduces us to the enigmatic creatures that collectively outweigh human beings ten to one and consume $40 billion worth of valuable stuff annually--and yet, in Margonelli's telling, seem weirdly familiar. Over the course of a decade-long obsession with the little bugs, Margonelli pokes around termite mounds and high-tech research facilities, closely watching biologists, roboticists, and geneticists. Her globe-trotting journey veers into uncharted territory, from evolutionary theory to Edwardian science literature to the military industrial complex. What begins as a natural history of the termite becomes a personal exploration of the unnatural future we're building, with darker observations on power, technology, historical trauma, and the limits of human cognition.

Whether in Namibia or Cambridge, Arizona or Australia, Margonelli turns up astounding facts and raises provocative questions. Is a termite an individual or a unit of a superorganism? Can we harness the termite's properties to change the world? If we build termite-like swarming robots, will they inevitably destroy us? Is it possible to think without having a mind? Underbug burrows into these questions and many others--unearthing disquieting answers about the world's most underrated insect and what it means to be human.

Author Notes

Lisa Margonelli is the author of the national bestseller Oil on the Brain: Petroleum's Long, Strange Trip to Your Tank and writes the Small Science column for Zócalo Public Square , where she is a senior editor. From 2006 to 2012, she was a fellow at the New America Foundation. She has written for The Atlantic , Wired , Scientific American , The New York Times , and other publications. She lives in Maine.

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

Termites, a group of insects closely related to cockroaches and responsible for up to $20 billion in property damage in the United States each year, make for an unlikely but fascinating protagonist in the capable and creative hands of science journalist Margonelli (Oil on the Brain). She uses the termite taxonomy as a way to address questions with "evolutionary, ecological and existential implications." Her far-ranging work touches on the nature of individuality, the use of drones by the military, the applicability of concepts of good and evil to science, and the creation of biofuels created using the termite gut, among other topics. Margonelli brings all of this to light by making complex, cutting-edge science understandable to the general reader, while also conveying the excitement, frustration, and plain drudgery inherent in the scientific endeavor. She provides firsthand descriptions of field and laboratory work throughout the world, from Cambridge, Mass., to Windhoek, Namibia, coupled with interviews of scientists involved in exploring the intricacies and implications of termite behavior. The range of disciplines represented by these researchers (entomology, physiology, genomics, physics, robotics) by itself ably demonstrates the interdisciplinary nature of current research on termites. Margonelli has written a book as entertaining as it is informative. (Aug.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

New York Review of Books Review

THERE IS SOMETHING deliciously ironic about a magnanimous book on termites. The insect's infamous and all-consuming love of literature - the chunkier the better - is well known. Maybe as a result, the written word on termites has traditionally, however, been dominated by sound advice on how to snuff them out. Termites are the unloved freaks of the social insect world. Bees are praised for their pollination skills and ants are lauded for their industry. Termites, on the other hand, are an affront to human civilization, munching their way through everything we hold dear: our libraries, our homes, even our cash - in 2011 an errant gang of termites burrowed into an Indian bank and ate $220,000 in bank notes. But, as Lisa Margonelli's mesmerizing book makes clear, we have got termites all wrong. For a start these "white ants" aren't ants at all but cockroaches that evolution has shrunk, blinded and turned surprisingly social (all of which does little for their public relations). An "inconvenient insect," the termite bucks basic biological rules and thumbs its nose at science as much as it does homeowners. But this mystery makes termites fascinating to Margonelli and a motley crew of multidisciplinary scientists all trying to crack the termite code and put it to good use. To Margonelli, termites aren't just "anticapitalist anarchists," they are "the poster bug for the 21st century - a little guide to really big ideas." "Underbug" charts her eight-year obsession with the tiny beasts, a journey that takes her around the globe from Massachusetts to Namibia. She embeds herself with microbial biologists looking to the termite's gut for clues about how to process wood into ethanol and solve the world's fuel problems; roboticists trying to decipher the simple algorithm that allows the termite to build the equivalent of a skyscraper without a complex brain to guide it; and ecologists trying to harness the termite's eco-engineering powers to regenerate land devastated by mining. Margonelli turns cutting-edge science into rich narrative by plunging deep into the termite's world - a move that requires a certain cognitive shift. "Watching termites," she explains, "requires that you turn your internal excitement meter down to just about zero." Margonelli, like the researchers she encounters, attempts to free herself from the shackles of human perception and enter the social insect psyche. It is a meditative state that allows her to ponder how innocent innovations can transform into destructive technologies, as well as the nature of individuality and the limits of human understanding. Early naturalists peered into hives and mounds and simply saw a reflection of their own monarchies or socialist utopian dreams. But "the great danger of seeing insects anthropomorphically is that it obscures their true bugginess," which is the key to unlocking their bio-secrets. This isn't just a brilliant book about bugs. For almost a decade, Margonelli scrutinized the scientists and their work with the same forensic gaze they themselves applied to the insects. The result is a rare longitudinal insight into the slippery nature of scientific progress. "It was boring, risky, lonely, cerebral. And where termites were concerned undeniably trippy." Watching an experiment in which termites are fed fluorescent water becomes "a decadent, Day-Glo, Warholian scene: eusociality as some kind of incestuous insect rave." In this hallucinogenic haze humans become ever more like termites to Margonelli; the termite mound a metaphor for brains, science and the complexity of existence. "Mounds became everything that mattered to me: The meaning of life. The key to the future. A parable about the interplay between the organized narratives of stories and the multilayered data and process that is science." As we stand "on the border of our natural history and an unnatural future," Margonelli's masterly book is a timely, thought-provoking exploration of what it means to be human, as much as what it means to be termite, and a penetrating look at the moral challenges of our ongoing technological revolution. LUCY cooke is the author of "The Truth About Animals." In 2011 an errant gang of termites burrowed into an Indiem bank and ate $220,000 in bank notes.

Library Journal Review

Science writer Margonelli (Oil on the Brain) again looks beneath the earth's surface, this time making the case for termites as a fascinating social insect worthy of attention and examination in the search for biofuels. Termites do, after all, outweigh the human population by a factor of ten and consume $40 billion worth of material annually. Margonelli travels the world to meet with scientists studying the creatures and their colonies. One mound housing 11 pounds of termites eats as much grass as a 900-pound cow. Through the course of the book, termite mounds (and associated fungi) are compared in turn to brains, superorganisms, political systems, and even planets. The researchers and their thought processes star alongside the insects in this account. VERDICT Popular science fans will enjoy this new perspective on a common insect. Recommended for most collections.-Teresa R. Faust, Coll. of Central Florida, Ocala © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.