Andy Smith
MIne-action specialist

Do insects eat High Explosive?

It is reported that ants/termites and perhaps other insects collect TNT and RDX. Whether they eat it, use it for construction, or are simply confused, no one has yet been able to tell me.

Why does this matter? Well, first it may explain why we sometimes encounter apparently undisturbed devices with some or all of the explosive missing. Second, and more important, it may provide a way of cheaply and reliably encouraging Self De-Activation (SDA). I do not suggest that this should be the sole SDA method because the initiation system and detonator/booster are left intact. But adding an access hole to the HE charge would cost little and could often be done after production (before fusing and arming) at very little cost. Such a hole would also allow vapour to escape and should enhance the utility of vapour detection methods (dogs and machines), so could be a real advantage even if insect activity were to prove unreliable.

I asked on the demining forum and heard from several highly experienced field workers that they had also noticed this in Angola, Bosnia Herzegovina and Libya, so the phenomena does not seem to be exclusive to Afghanistan. One respondent reported finding a colony inside a TM57 (the case had corroded enough to provide access).

The main evidence comes from Stephen Achal and John McFee, who published a good record of ant activity that they observed during separate research conducted in Afghanistan during 2008. They witnessed and photographed ants collecting RDX and TNT and taking it to their colonies. The photographs in the attached PDF provide pretty convincing evidence. As far as I know, no one has funded the further research that would be necessary to answer the obvious questions that arise.

1. What do the ants do with the High Explosive?
2. Is it only RDX and TNT - or are they also attracted to other explosive compounds (PE and Gelignite, for example)?
. Does eating or living with it shorten the lives of their colonies?
4. Can they be relied on to collect and disperse RDX and TNT anywhere in the world?

A small amount of funding could provide answers to the above - so please encourage someone to fund finding the answers.

Incidentally, rodents are also known to eat explosives, so extending the research to cover how and why they are attracted might add value to the inquiry.