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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
White Ants
By Henry Drummond (1851–1897)
 
From ‘Tropical Africa’

THE TERMITE or white ant is a small insect, with a bloated, yellowish-white body, and a somewhat large thorax, oblong-shaped, and colored a disagreeable oily brown. The flabby, tallow-like body makes this insect sufficiently repulsive, but it is for quite another reason that the white ant is the worst abused of all living vermin in warm countries. The termite lives almost exclusively upon wood; and the moment a tree is cut or a log sawn for any economical purpose, this insect is upon its track. One may never see the insect, possibly, in the flesh, for it lives underground; but its ravages confront one at every turn. You build your house perhaps, and for a few months fancy you have pitched upon the one solitary site in the country where there are no white ants. But one day suddenly the door-post totters, and lintel and rafters come down together with a crash. You look at a section of the wrecked timbers, and discover that the whole inside is eaten clean away. The apparently solid logs of which the rest of the house is built are now mere cylinders of bark, and through the thickest of them you could push your little finger. Furniture, tables, chairs, chests of drawers, everything made of wood, is inevitably attacked, and in a single night a strong trunk is often riddled through and through, and turned into matchwood. There is no limit, in fact, to the depredation by these insects, and they will eat books, or leather, or cloth, or anything; and in many parts of Africa I believe if a man lay down to sleep with a wooden leg, it would be a heap of sawdust in the morning. So much feared is this insect now, that no one in certain parts of India and Africa ever attempts to travel with such a thing as a wooden trunk. On the Tanganyika plateau I have camped on ground which was as hard as adamant, and as innocent of white ants apparently as the pavement of St. Paul’s; and wakened next morning to find a stout wooden box almost gnawed to pieces. Leather portmanteaus share the same fate, and the only substances which seem to defy the marauders are iron and tin.  1
  But what has this to do with earth or with agriculture? The most important point in the work of the white ant remains to be noted. I have already said that the white ant is never seen. Why he should have such a repugnance to being looked at is at first sight a mystery, seeing that he himself is stone blind. But his coyness is really due to the desire for self-protection; for the moment his juicy body shows itself above ground there are a dozen enemies waiting to devour it. And yet the white ant can never procure any food until it comes above ground. Nor will it meet the case for the insect to come to the surface under the shadow of night. Night in the tropics, so far as animal life is concerned, is as the day. It is the great feeding-time, the great fighting-time, the carnival of the carnivores, and of all beasts, birds, and insects of prey, from the least to the greatest. It is clear then that darkness is no protection to the white ant; and yet without coming out of the ground it cannot live. How does it solve the difficulty? It takes the ground out along with it. I have seen white ants working on the top of a high tree, and yet they were underground. They took up some of the ground with them to the tree-top; just as the Esquimaux heap up snow, building it into the low tunnel-huts in which they live, so the white ants collect earth, only in this case not from the surface, but from some depth underneath the ground, and plaster it into tunneled ways. Occasionally these run along the ground, but more often mount in endless ramifications to the top of trees, meandering along every branch and twig, and here and there debouching into large covered chambers which occupy half the girth of the trunk. Millions of trees in some districts are thus fantastically plastered over with tubes, galleries, and chambers of earth, and many pounds’ weight of subsoil must be brought up for the mining of even a single tree. The building material is conveyed by the insects up a central pipe with which all the galleries communicate, and which at the downward end connects with a series of subterranean passages leading deep into the earth. The method of building the tunnels and covered ways is as follows: At the foot of a tree the tiniest hole cautiously opens in the ground close to the bark. A small head appears, with a grain of earth clasped in its jaws. Against the tree trunk this earth-grain is deposited, and the head is withdrawn. Presently it reappears with another grain of earth; this is laid beside the first, rammed tight against it, and again the builder descends underground for more. The third grain is not placed against the tree, but against the former grain; a fourth, a fifth, and a sixth follow, and the plan of the foundation begins to suggest itself as soon as these are in position. The stones or grains or pellets of earth are arranged in a semicircular wall; the termite, now assisted by three or four others, standing in the middle between the sheltering wall and the tree, and working briskly with head and mandible to strengthen the position. The wall in fact forms a small moon-rampart, and as it grows higher and higher it soon becomes evident that it is going to grow from a low battlement into a long perpendicular tunnel running up the side of the tree. The workers, safely ensconced inside, are now carrying up the structure with great rapidity, disappearing in turn as soon as they have laid their stone, and rushing off to bring up another. The way in which the building is done is extremely curious, and one could watch the movement of these wonderful little masons by the hour. Each stone as it is brought to the top is first of all covered with mortar. Of course, without this the whole tunnel would crumble into dust before reaching the height of half an inch; but the termite pours over the stone a moist sticky secretion, turning the grain round and round with its mandibles until the whole is covered with slime. Then it places the stone with great care upon the top of the wall, works it about vigorously for a moment or two till it is well jammed into its place, and then starts off instantly for another load.  2
  Peering over the growing wall, one soon discovers one, two, or more termites of a somewhat larger build, considerably longer, and with a very different arrangement of the parts of the head, and especially of the mandibles. These important-looking individuals saunter about the rampart in the most leisurely way, but yet with a certain air of business, as if perhaps the one was the master of works and the other the architect. But closer observation suggests that they are in no wise superintending operations, nor in any immediate way contributing to the structure, for they take not the slightest notice either of the workers or the works. They are posted there in fact as sentries; and there they stand, or promenade about, at the mouth of every tunnel, like Sister Anne, to see if anybody is coming. Sometimes somebody does come, in the shape of another ant; the real ant this time, not the defenseless Neuropteron, but some valiant and belted knight from the warlike Formicidæ. Singly or in troops, this rapacious little insect, fearless in its chitinous coat of mail, charges down the tree trunk, its antennæ waving defiance to the enemy and its cruel mandibles thirsting for termite blood. The worker white ant is a poor defenseless creature, and blind and unarmed, would fall an immediate prey to these well-drilled banditti, who forage about in every tropical forest in unnumbered legion. But at the critical moment, like Goliath from the Philistines, the soldier termite advances to the fight. With a few sweeps of its scythe-like jaws it clears the ground, and while the attacking party is carrying off its dead, the builders, unconscious of the fray, quietly continue their work. To every hundred workers in a white-ant colony, which numbers many thousands of individuals, there are perhaps two of these fighting men. The division of labor here is very wonderful; and the fact that besides these two specialized forms there are in every nest two other kinds of the same insect, the kings and queens, shows the remarkable height to which civilization in these communities has attained.  3
  But where is this tunnel going to, and what object have the insects in view in ascending this lofty tree? Thirty feet from the ground, across innumerable forks, at the end of a long branch, are a few feet of dead wood. How the ants know it is there, how they know its sap has dried up, and that it is now fit for the termites’ food, is a mystery. Possibly they do not know, and are only prospecting on the chance. The fact that they sometimes make straight for the decaying limb argues in these instances a kind of definite instinct; but on the other hand, the fact that in most cases the whole tree, in every branch and limb, is covered with termite tunnels, would show perhaps that they work most commonly on speculation, while the number of abandoned tunnels, ending on a sound branch in a cul de sac, proves how often they must suffer the usual disappointments of all such adventurers. The extent to which these insects carry on their tunneling is quite incredible, until one has seen it in nature with his own eyes. The tunnels are perhaps about the thickness of a small-sized gas-pipe, but there are junctions here and there of large dimensions, and occasionally patches of earthwork are found, embracing nearly the whole trunk for some feet. The outside of these tunnels, which are never quite straight, but wander irregularly along stem and branch, resembles in texture a coarse sandpaper; and the color, although this naturally varies with the soil, is usually a reddish brown. The quantity of earth and mud plastered over a single tree is often enormous; and when one thinks that it is not only an isolated specimen here and there that is frescoed in this way, but often all the trees of a forest, some idea will be formed of the magnitude of the operations of these insects, and the extent of their influence upon the soil which they are thus ceaselessly transporting from underneath the ground.  4
  In traveling through the great forests of the Rocky Mountains or of the Western States, the broken branches and fallen trunks, strewing the ground breast-high with all sorts of decaying litter, frequently make locomotion impossible. To attempt to ride through these Western forests, with their meshwork of interlocked branches and decaying trunks, is often out of the question, and one has to dismount and drag his horse after him as if he were clambering through a wood-yard. But in an African forest not a fallen branch is seen. One is struck at first at a certain clean look about the great forests of the interior, a novel and unaccountable cleanness, as if the forest bed was carefully swept and dusted daily by unseen elves. And so indeed it is. Scavengers of a hundred kinds remove decaying animal matter, from the carcass of a fallen elephant to the broken wing of a gnat; eating it, or carrying it out of sight and burying it in the deodorizing earth. And these countless millions of termites perform a similar function for the vegetable world, making away with all plants and trees, all stems, twigs, and tissues, the moment the finger of decay strikes the signal. Constantly in these woods one comes across what appear to be sticks and branches and bundles of fagots, but when closely examined they are seen to be mere casts in mud. From these hollow tubes, which preserve the original form of the branch down to the minutest knot or fork, the ligneous tissue is often entirely removed, while others are met with in all stages of demolition. There is the section of an actual specimen, which is not yet completely destroyed, and from which the mode of attack may be easily seen. The insects start apparently from two centres. One company attacks the inner bark, which is the favorite morsel, leaving the coarse outer bark untouched, or more usually replacing it with grains of earth, atom by atom, as they eat it away. The inner bark is gnawed off likewise as they go along, but the woody tissue beneath is allowed to remain, to form a protective sheath for the second company, who begin work at the centre. This second contingent eats its way outward and onward, leaving a thin tube of the outer wood to the last, as props to the mine, till they have finished the main excavation. When a fallen trunk lying upon the ground is the object of attack, the outer cylinder is frequently left quite intact, and it is only when one tries to drag it off to his camp-fire that he finds to his disgust that he is dealing with a mere hollow tube, a few lines in thickness, filled up with mud.  5
  But the works above ground represent only a part of the labors of these slow-moving but most industrious of creatures. The arboreal tubes are only the prolongation of a much more elaborate system of subterranean tunnels, which extend over large areas and mine the earth sometimes to a depth of many feet or even yards.  6
  The material excavated from these underground galleries and from the succession of domed chambers—used as nurseries or granaries—to which they lead, has to be thrown out upon the surface. And it is from these materials that the huge ant-hills are reared, which form so distinctive a feature of the African landscape. These heaps and mounds are so conspicuous that they may be seen for miles, and so numerous are they and so useful as cover to the sportsman, that without them in certain districts hunting would be impossible. The first things, indeed, to strike the traveler in entering the interior are the mounds of the white ant, now dotting the plain in groups like a small cemetery, now rising into mounds, singly or in clusters, each thirty or forty feet in diameter and ten or fifteen in height; or again, standing out against the sky like obelisks, their bare sides carved and fluted into all sorts of fantastic shapes. In India these ant-heaps seldom attain a height of more than a couple of feet, but in Central Africa they form veritable hills, and contain many tons of earth. The brick houses of the Scotch mission-station on Lake Nyassa have all been built out of a single ants’ nest, and the quarry from which the material has been derived forms a pit beside the settlement some dozen feet in depth. A supply of bricks as large again could probably still be taken from this convenient depot; and the missionaries on Lake Tanganyika and onwards to Victoria Nyanza have been similarly indebted to the labors of the termites. In South Africa the Zulus and Kaffirs pave all their huts with white-ant earth; and during the Boer war our troops in Pretoria, by scooping out the interior from the smaller beehive-shaped ant-heaps and covering the top with clay, constantly used them as ovens. These ant-heaps may be said to abound over the whole interior of Africa, and there are several distinct species. The most peculiar, as well as the most ornate, is a small variety from one to two feet in height, which occurs in myriads along the shores of Lake Tanganyika. It is built in symmetrical tiers, and resembles a pile of small rounded hats, one above another, the rims depending like eaves, and sheltering the body of the hill from rain. To estimate the amount of earth per acre raised from the waterline of the subsoil by white ants, would not in some districts be an impossible task; and it would be found probably that the quantity at least equaled that manipulated annually in temperate regions by the earthworm.  7
  These mounds, however, are more than mere waste-heaps. Like the corresponding region underground, they are built into a meshwork of tunnels, galleries, and chambers, where the social interests of the community are attended to. The most spacious of these chambers, usually far underground, is very properly allocated to the head of the society, the queen. The queen termite is a very rare insect, and as there are seldom more than one or at most two to a colony, and as the royal apartments are hidden far in the earth, few persons have ever seen a queen; and indeed most, if they did happen to come across it, from its very singular appearance would refuse to believe that it had any connection with white ants. It possesses indeed the true termite head, but there the resemblance to the other members of the family stops; for the size of the head bears about the same proportion to the rest of the body as does the tuft on his Glengarry bonnet to a six-foot Highlander. The phenomenal corpulence of the royal body in the case of the queen termite is possibly due in part to want of exercise; for once seated upon her throne, she never stirs to the end of her days. She lies there, a large, loathsome, cylindrical package, two or three inches long, in shape like a sausage, and as white as a bolster. Her one duty in life is to lay eggs; and it must be confessed she discharges her function with complete success, for in a single day her progeny often amounts to many thousands, and for months this enormous fecundity never slackens. The body increases slowly in size, and through the transparent skin the long folded ovary may be seen, with the eggs, impelled by a peristaltic motion, passing onward for delivery to the workers, who are waiting to carry them to the nurseries, where they are hatched. Assiduous attention meantime is paid to the queen by other workers, who feed her diligently, with much self-denial stuffing her with morsel after morsel from their own jaws. A guard of honor in the shape of a few of the larger soldier ants is also in attendance, as a last and almost unnecessary precaution. In addition finally to the soldiers, workers, and queen, the royal chamber has also one other inmate—the king. He is a very ordinary-looking insect, about the same size as the soldiers, but the arrangement of the parts of the head and body is widely different, and like the queen he is furnished with eyes.  8
 
 
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