And I am Still Heartbroken?

By Maneka Sanjay Gandhi

When my husband died, I inherited his work table, a long wooden desk with huge drawers. It has travelled with me from house to house and I kept everything of value in it : letters from my husband, wedding albums, unfinished manuscripts, pictures of my childhood and my son’s childhood, letters from my mother and mother in law.

When I moved into 14 Ashoka Road in 2002, The British-built house had been the badly kept and was the office of the Communist Party for 30 years. I should have paid more attention to it, especially when I saw the fungus seeping in and termites eating the doors. But every time I called the government engineers in, they either replaced the doors or painted over the fungus.

I tried lots of old grandmother remedies: planting banana trees in the garden, as this is supposed to keep away termites, putting fresh cow dung patties in different places so that termites would be attracted and then, as they clambered on, we could get rid of all of them.

One day I decided to finish my book on garden plants. But I couldn’t get the drawers to open. When I called the carpenter in, we discovered everything had been eaten by termites – and I mean everything. In one stroke I lost all my treasures.

I cried. I had the house broken down from inside and de-termited room by room. It took 16 months.

So many people ask me questions about why nature invented mosquitoes, cockroaches or termites! Even though termites have robbed me of my most precious belongings, I acknowledge that they are more important to the world than I am.

Pests to homeowners, they are actually beneficial insects. They can digest tough plant fibres, or cellulose, because of the specialized bacteria in their guts. They break down tough fibres, they recycle dead trees back into the soil, contributing towards a rapid recycling and turn-over of minerals. When they tunnel through the soil they aerate and improve it, which helps tropical forests and agricultural lands grow faster as water and nutrients reach the plants and trees. Some species attack living trees, but these are trees that are weakened, or under stress, which release a chemical (kairomone) used by the termites to locate it.

Only a handful of the 3,000 or so known termite species are pests to people. The rest are soil engineers who create the ground under your feet and keep it healthy. Termites thrive by eating what others can’t or won’t: wood, dung, lichen, even dirt.

By poking holes as they dig through the ground, termites allow rain to soak deep into the soil, rather than running off or evaporating. Termites mix inorganic particles of sand, stone and clay with organic bits of leaf litter, discarded exoskeletons and the occasional dead animal, a blending that helps the soil retain nutrients and resist erosion.

The stickiness of a termite’s faeces gives body to the soil and prevents erosion. Bacteria in the termite’s gut are avid nitrogen fixers, able to extract the vital element from the air and convert it into fertilizer.

Termites, and the elaborate habitats they construct, are crucial to the health of deserts and semi-deserts, tropical and subtropical rain forests, warm, temperate woodlands. At least 126 species of termites (including wood feeding ones) feed on 18 species of mammal dung  and can quickly remove large amounts. As termites bring large quantities of dung below the soil surface and enrich soils with nutrients, dung feeding by termites is important in the functioning of tropical ecosystems.

Researchers at Princeton University report, in the journal Science, that termite mounds serve as oases in the desert, allowing the plants that surround them to persist on a fraction of the annual rainfall and to bounce back after a withering drought. Even when desertification starts to happen in the area, the vegetation on or around the mounds does so well that it will keep reseeding the environment. These mounds prevent fragile dry land from slipping into lifeless wasteland.

Termites have been historically widely eaten by people suffering from malnutrition due to protein deficiency, fed to animals, and used as medicine across the continents of Asia, South America and Africa. In fact, these insects are among the most commonly consumed insects on the planet, second only to grasshoppers. In a survey on the consumption of termites, held in Côte d’Ivoire, from 500 people surveyed, 97% consumed termites, demonstrating that such use is part of the reality of rural and urban populations in that country.

A. Vasconcellos, de Figueirêdo, I.S. Policarpo, and R.R. Nóbrega Alves have done a study on edible and medicinal termites. 45 termite species were recorded as being used by human populations in the human diet, or for livestock feeding, and nine species used as a therapeutic resource. As food or feed for animals they are eaten in 29 countries in Africa, Thailand, Indonesia, China, Malaysia, Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela and Columbia. Even Indians eat the Odontotermesfeae species of termite.

Zambia uses termites to combat child malnutrition, Somalia to suture wounds. Brazil uses termites for asthma, flu, bronchitis and as antifungal, India uses them for asthma, ulcers, body pain, rheumatism and the enhancement of lactation. Nigeria uses termites to stop sickness in pregnant women, soothsaying and to ward away ghosts!

Termites of the species Macrotermes have high levels of proteins and lipids and are abundant in Africa. They are known as “big termites”, and are considered one of the favourite foods, not only of humans but also of gorillas and chimpanzees and wild birds.

Their mounds, or termitaria, are also important to humans. For instance, researchers E.Arhin, M.C.Esoah and B.S.Berdie, have studied the Economic Importance of Termitaria in Mineral Exploration. Termites transport deep seated inorganic and organic material into their shelter. In areas where minerals are not immediately apparent, miners analyse the soil of termite mounds before choosing the area. Often gold has been found in the samples.

The mounds are vast, clean, well ventilated with cool circulating air - palaces built of tunnels and galleries of sand, clay and termite excretions. The mounds protect their builders from the sun that would desiccate them, the rain that would drown them, and their many predators. The mounds are refuges for plants, fungi and large herbivores, too. They are cooler in the heat of day and warmer at night. Antelopes often congregate around termite mounds to graze. Cheetahs come to remain cooler during the day. Elephants rub itchy backsides against them.

They are also fascinating insects. The oldest societies on this planet, almost 200 million years old, each colony has three distinct castes : the reproductives (queen and king), the soldiers, and  workers. The colony can consist of more than a million individuals. Their nest is located either underground, on a tree, or in a mound sticking out of the soil.

In almost all species, the workers and soldiers are blind. New reproductive termites are winged, and able to fly. These young kings and queens leave their home colony to find a new place to found their own colony. They break their wings off and settle down in their new home to raise their offspring.

Termites use chemical scents produced by chest glands to talk to one another. Each colony produces a distinct scent. Termites stay clean by grooming each other. Their good hygiene is important to their survival, as it keeps parasites and harmful bacteria under control within the colony.

Termite soldiers guard the nest at all times. When they sense danger they sound the alarm by banging their heads against the gallery walls to send warning vibrations throughout the colony. If workers set out to repair a hole in the mound, they will be surrounded by soldiers who protect them.

Termites are the ultimate model social citizens. They divide their labour and are altruistic and unselfish. In a new study of “panic escape” behaviour among termites as they seek to flee from danger, researchers at Louisiana State University Agricultural Center found that, unlike humans in a crowded theatre, or ants, termites do not panic.

They don’t run about, push and shove, climb over the fallen. They file into a single formation and follow the ones in front in a unidirectional flow at a uniform speed and spacing. If one termite stumbles, or slows down, those behind stop and wait for it to right itself: No trampling allowed.

Unfortunately we build our homes from termite food — wood. And I am still heartbroken. 

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