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Do termites like rock music?

Rock on Ehrlich

Time to get to the bottom of another odd pest ‘fact’.

As a starting point- it’s very specific, isn’t it? Not just any music- Rock Music. Bach won’t get termites biting, they require Bachman Turner Overdrive; termites won’t chomp to Chopin, but Nickelback gets them nibbling?! What separates rock music from other genres?

It transpires that the composition of various genres of music can be categorized by the frequencies generated by the principal instruments used to generate it. For example; pop music when you look at it as an entire genre, tends to use electronic synthesizers generating sound within one frequency band, whilst acoustic guitars generate sound in a different band. Rock bands, by and large, are comprised of a vocalist, a drummer, a bass guitarist and at least one lead electric guitarist. The sound frequencies generated by the individual instruments characterize the genre and make it distinct in spectrum from other genres. Researchers have cited the frequency of 2.5KHz outputs for bass and electric guitars, which are distinctive of the rock genre. Sound engineering website Har-Bal.com specifies:

“600Hz – 3kHz: these frequencies also give presence but of a generally harder nature. High output in this region is fairly common in rock music as it gives it a hard edge that suites the genre.”

So, what is it that termites like about those frequencies? The answer lies with the research of an Australian group led by Theodore A Evan at CSIRO who has been looking at the responses of termites to vibration frequencies for some time. His group’s paper from 2004  states:

“termites had a clear preference for the 160-mm block when the 20-mm block was excited by the 2.8-kHz signal”

Further research by the same group in 2007 showed that the species of drywood termite tested used vibration to evaluate the size of piece of wood and that they showed a positive attraction to wood where other termites were feeding. This makes sense as in that it is likely to be a good food source and the termites need not expend further energy to find another one. Wooden blocks vibrated in the range also generated by electric guitars was more attractive to termites than blocks vibrated at other frequencies. Wow — science isn’t dull after all!

While there seems to be a scientific basis for vibrations made by rock music instruments and termite feeding preferences, this team’s work is not the origin for the fact. A web search for variations of the phrase showed that it was being referenced long before 2004 and seems to have proliferated in the early 2000s as a Snapple “Real Fact”:

#33 Termites eat through wood two times faster when listening to rock music!

Snapple started putting facts like these on caps in 2002, according to a Washington Post staff writer. Now, whilst not all Snapple Real facts are entirely true, they must have been harvested from somewhere rather than made up. This odd-ball soft drink has certainly done a lot to popularize termites’ musical preferences- but where did it come from? It certainly pre-dates the Snapple cap, as it turns up on web searches from 2000 in a poster’s sig file.

I started to wonder if the fact had been culled from a book of weird facts, or something similar, so that was the next port of call. A chance clip from a publication called The Avent Gardener that happens to have been captured in Google’s book search gave the vital clue to solve the mystery: Dr. Trenchard Bowelson. Dr. Bowelson was an extension entomologist supervising a Masters’ degree student by the name of Jeanne N. Collier who, it seems, had a penchant for rock and roll.

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