5 questions with Chris Poehlmann

By |  May 28, 2019
PHOTO: ZOE SMITH

Chris Poehlmann creates Termitats that showcase the behavior of Pacific dampwood termites, which are large and easy to observe. PHOTO: ZOE SMITH

This month, we ask Chris Poehlmann, developer of the Termitat, a tabletop-sized termite habitat, to explain how he came to develop a device that showcases termite behavior. The experienced designer and fabricator of interactive museum exhibits created the name Termitat from the words termite and habitat. His past work includes projects using live animals, with a specialty in social insects. 

1. How did you get the idea to display termites doing what they do best?

I was contracted as a museum exhibit professional to come up with exhibits of social insects appropriate for a natural history museum in California. After my work with ants, bees and termites, I was particularly drawn to the fascinating story of the termite and its marvelous evolutionary path to becoming one of the most successful organisms on Earth.

2. What species of termite do you use?

My research into finding the best termite to use for exhibition led me to the Pacific dampwood termite (Zootermopsis angusticollis). This species is a good exhibit animal because it is large, it lives in the wood it consumes and it does not need contact with soil. And, importantly and conveniently, I have them in abundance in a forest near where I live in northern California.

3The design lets you see termite activity, but can the termites escape?

The Termitat’s tightly fitting case design uses 0.25-inch-thick acrylic, a plastic injection molded ring and security screws. It has yet to be broken open in normal use. Anyway, a small colony group released most likely traumatically in a non-forest location would not be able to establish themselves individually or as a group. Any individual termites on their own and away from their colony would perish. Plus, if your house has the same conditions as a damp, decaying forest log, you have other more serious problems to deal with.

4. The accompanying booklet and website contain plenty of information about termites, so we have to ask: Why the interest in termites?

There are amazing stories to discover among the millions of plants and animals on this planet. One of the most incredible is the tale of the termites. Often ignored due to their unfortunate misrepresentation as “just a pest,” these complex and evolved insects are incredibly fascinating to observe and have important lessons to teach us. Termites and humans are both highly social species, but unlike us, termites have remained in balance with the Earth’s complex ecosystems.

Besides being just fascinating to watch, they have many lessons to pass on. As scientists, architects and even robotics engineers study these amazing creatures, they are discovering how sophisticated termite adaptations are and the instrumental part these insects play in Earth’s ecology. Termites are the 200-million-year-old master recyclers of the Earth’s carbon who also share a social behavior system similar to ours.

5. How are pest management professionals (PMPs) using the Termitat?

Many PMPs pursue continuing education and purchase them because of their own curiosity and interest in these insects that are so central to their careers and services they offer. Additionally, the Termitat’s role in helping them educate their customers can lead to increased sales and customer loyalty.

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