African Tales – Termite tunnels, termite mounds

December 16 – One of  Zimbabwe’s most influential insects is the termite. Just a soft and retiring insect that spends most of its time underground, it is still much in the public eye. There are many varieties and sizes, but they all help to keep dead wood from accumulating to a large extent and this is not always welcome.

African house with termite mound beside it

Besides eating dead branches and trees they also eat houses, thereby assisting the housing industry! Termites are constantly at work, eating the wood and mud huts of the African villagers and going all the way up into the thatched roofs. After a few years the huts are no longer livable and are torn down and new ones erected.

However, the soil from termite mounds makes excellent bricks and many termite homes are dug up and used for making bricks, sun dried or kiln fired. Workers digging up these mounds do have to be careful, for the soldier termites defend their homes vigorously and bite hard with their huge jaws, and boots or shoes are definitely an asset. These soldier termites have at times been used by the Africans to stitch wounds together, with the bodies snapped off and the heads left for a while until healing has taken place.

Termites do not just eat African huts. They also invade modern homes, coming up through the foundations and working into the woodwork, all the way up to the roof and riddling the timber with their tunnels. To keep these pests out, houses now have a thin sheet of metal laid down over the foundations, a few inches above ground level, and that stops the termites unless they manage to make mud tunnels that extend out over the metal edges and back into the walls above. It’s up to the homeowner to keep an eye on that. In houses that do not have this termite proofing, furniture has to be protected by keeping it back from the walls a few inches, as the termites will make little mud tunnels extending out from the wall to the furniture. If the floor is not termite-proof, furniture may need to have the legs standing in cans of water or oil to keep the pests from going up inside the legs.

Birds, toads, carnivorous insects, spiders, lizards, all love to eat termites and rejoice when they swarm. Around a termite exit hole, toads can be found clustered, gobbling up the termites as they emerge, birds hover overhead, and everywhere hungry beetles and lizards can be seen having supper. The gauzy wings lie everywhere, blowing in the wind and making big heaps. Since flying termites are attracted to lights, they will cluster at lighted windows, trying to get in, and unless there are screens or glass to keep them out, they will fill the house. If you don’t have these excluders, you can’t have lights in your house after dark or eat supper in peace. I remember Mom busily sweeping up the wings in the house after a night of swarming, as some of the flyers always managed to get inside.

Matabele ants attacking termites

Matabele ants attacking termites

Termites are sometimes called white ants, but they are not ants. They are often ant food, however. Ants love to eat termites and some species will actually go in raiding parties to a termite mound and look for an entrance and go in and grab a mouthful and carry it away. The termite soldiers will fight to protect the workers but ants are far superior as warriors and win the battle nearly every time. Thank you, ants, for helping to keep termites from overrunning the world.

All termites have kings and queens that are well cared for by the workers and that live for many years. The king and queen live together in underground caves deep in the mounds and workers are always in attendance to feed them and to carry away the eggs that the queen is constantly laying. The queen develops a huge abdomen, thumb-sized in the large species, that prevents her from walking any more and is simply an egg machine. I was once given a large chunk of termite mound, dug out by Africans getting brick material, and put it for the time being in a wooden wagon I had. I forgot about it, until one day I noticed that my wagon was being eaten. It so happened that that chunk of mound contained the king and queen and some workers, and they were setting up a new home in my wagon.

Termite mounds

Some varieties of termites build huge clay mounds, many feet tall and wide. Some are so wide that motor roads can be built right through them and there will still be parts of the mounds on both sides of the road. The mounds are very hard, but if broken through, workers will shortly arrive with mouthfuls of soil to fix the break, with the big soldiers close at hand to keep invaders out. When wet, the soil is slippery and I found that out one day when I was learning to drive Dad’s truck. Driving through a termite mound after a rain, I suddenly found the truck sliding off the road and it only stopped when it ran into a sapling. My driving lesson was of course over for that day. And so, actually, is this African tale! – DALE

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