Monday, November 22, 2010
One brilliantly sunny day, after days of rain many years ago, I was in our backyard when the air around me suddenly filled with graceful winged insects that drifted off and then disappeared. They seemed to be rising from the ground beneath me and when I looked I saw hundreds more crawling unsteadily about the flagstones beneath my feet. I captured one for later identification and watched as all of them became airborne and disappeared within an hour.
I was chagrined to discover that the beautiful flight I witnessed was the annual departure of reproductive termites from their nest. The one somewhere on our property. Uh oh.
The nice exterminator who came the next day couldn't find any sign of invasion of our home but still felt strongly that we should begin an toxic and expensive monthly pest control program. We decided against it and have been keeping watch for signs that the termites have moved from the old stump beneath the house to the house itself. So far it hasn't happened.
It turns out that termites, like the fungi I'm so fond of, serve an important function as one of the recycling crews of our planet. They recycle old, decayed wood and help keep the soil porous and rich with nutrients. Oh, and termites are considered choice eating by several species, including our own, some of whom consider toasted termite to be a culinary delight. Earlier this year I watched a Western fence lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis) eat quite a few termites as they emerged from the ground to fly away.
Most of the information about termites seems to be provided by colleagues and employers of that nice exterminator that came to our house after the first termite flight we saw. Here's some less biased information, including a wonderful video of an amazing termite skyscraper in Nigeria.
University of California
Arizona Sonora Desert Museum
David Attenborough video