Exposure of the African mound building termite, Macrotermes bellicosus workers to commercially formulated 2,4-D and atrazine caused high mortality and impaired locomotor response

PLoS One. 2020 Mar 24;15(3):e0230664. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0230664. eCollection 2020.


Recent empirical evidence suggests that herbicides have damaging effects on non-target organisms in both natural and semi-natural ecosystems. The African mound building termite, Macrotermes bellicosus, is an important beneficial insect that functions as an ecosystem engineer due to its role in the breakdown of dead and decaying materials. Here, we examined the effects of 2,4-D amine salt (2,4-D) and atrazine based herbicides viz. Vestamine® and Ultrazine® on the survival and locomotion response of M. bellicosus. Worker termites were treated with a range of concentrations of Vestamine® (the recommended concentration: 6.25 ml per 500 ml of water, 0.25- and 0.5-fold below the recommended concentration and distilled water as control) and Ultrazine® (the recommended concentration: 3.75 ml per 500 ml of water, 0.25-, 0.5-, 2.0- and 4-fold of the recommended concentration and distilled water as control) for 24 hours for the mortality test, and allowed to run for 15 seconds for the locomotion trial. All concentrations of both Vestamine® and Ultrazine® were highly toxic to worker termites and mortality increased as the concentration and time after treatment increased. For both herbicides, concentrations far less than the recommended rates caused 100% mortality. The speed of termites was significantly influenced by both Vestamine® and Ultrazine® as termites exposed to all tested concentrations of the herbicides exhibited reduced running speed than the control. These findings suggest that beneficial insects, especially M. bellicosus may experience high mortality (up to 100%) and reduced mobility if they are sprayed upon or come in contact with plant materials that have been freshly sprayed with (less or more than) the recommended concentrations of Vestamine® and Ultrazine®. The findings of our study calls for the reassessment of the usage of 2,4-D and atrazine based herbicides in weed control in termite and other beneficial insect populated habitats.

MeSH terms

  • 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic Acid / pharmacology*
  • Animals
  • Atrazine / pharmacology*
  • Ecosystem
  • Herbicides / pharmacology*
  • Isoptera / drug effects
  • Isoptera / physiology*
  • Locomotion / drug effects*


  • Herbicides
  • 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic Acid
  • Atrazine

Grant support

The author(s) received no specific funding for this work.