Monday, November 22, 2010

Insect ballet

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


  1. Yikes - I'm glad we don't have 15 ft. high termite constructions here! Great sketch and observations about an insect we all shudder to see...maybe the stump actually preventing them from choosing your house for their home.

  2. Lovely drawing, Debbie. I saw exactly the same thing in a densely forested area on one of the Gulf Islands this summer. The owners of the front steps from which the blur of glinting wings was emerging had decided to deal with it in the same manner as you did, and said they were finding the whole thing a little less scary evey year.

  3. I recognise those!! I expect to go back to Australia at some stage and find a pile of dust where our timber house should be. Hate the thought of poison though.

    Beautiful sketchbook spread as usual.

  4. Good sketch. As soon as I saw the drawings I knew what you were going to be talking about. Termites are fascinating. I once kept some in an ant farm and fed them chunks of pine 2X4.

  5. Oh my. I know all too well how your felt when thousands and thousands of termites suddenly erupted from your yard. (Nervous) This fall I was awestruck by a mass exodus from beneath my mimosa. Later in the day another mass exited from the area where a pine was cut down a few years ago. When my termites took off they were backlit by sunlight with dark shadows behind. It really was quite beautiful.

    Good to see you back on your blog again!

  6. I'm so glad you didn't exterminate Debbie! We have termite invasions every year with the rains and have to watch out for the house getting chewed (we don't have the wooden houses that US does though), but mostly they provide a feast for bats, swallows, lizards - even dogs - I remember in Zimbabwe farm dogs eating so many their stomachs were like drums, and wings stuck out of their muzzles like whiskers. People fried them too and ate them with salt, very more-ish I believe, though I didn't try them :p
    Have you read 'Soul of the White Ant' by Eugene Marais? I think you would love it!