formosan_termite_alates

When termites take wing

by Abinand Reddy

The summer had beaten the valley. Everything looked thirsty – the animals and trees. Even the ground looked parched. Except for the occasional rustling of the tired and dusty leaves, the valley stood still. The calls of birds and squirrels weren’t to be heard today. Maybe they had found a nice shady tree in which to take a nap this afternoon.

As evening set in, the valley suddenly cooled and to my pleasant surprise, a heavy bank of clouds drifted in. A few dragonflies were playing above us. ‘Lots of dragonflies in the sky means it’s going to rain’, Abdul had once told me. But I had been fooled by these clouds and dragonflies countless times before.

Then I smelt it, water on soil: rain. Drifting in subtly, first the smell, then a drop and then one more and finally a steady shower. It didn’t last too long, but I was elated. So was the valley. It had gotten a bath and looked new, dust washed off, thirsts quenched, the squirrels and birds singing again.

Walking back from school, I noticed a fluttering pair of glassy wings that seemed stuck together: a little fairy dancing in the air. A couple of steps further there were more. At first I thought they were dragonflies, but these were smaller, and didn’t have the long thick body of dragonflies. By the time I got home they were everywhere, in thousands, almost as though a fairy was born out of each drop of rain. All my friends were equally amazed, some watched with absolute bewilderment, while others danced amongst the fairies, occasionally jumping and trying to grab one. These little wings didn’t seem to care, they didn’t bite like mosquitoes nor did they shy away from people like flies.

Where were they coming from? Did they really hatch from the drops? I noticed many of them flying out from behind a bush. I walked up closer and peered onto the other side to witness the magical birth of these fairies. To my astonishment, these wings, countless of them, were scrambling out of the ground through a little mound. A tiny volcano erupting and spewing out insects. This seemed as odd as fairies being born from water droplets. Around me, more insects were emerging from other mounds.

When I finally got home, Amma solved this mystery. These were termites, the little insects that chewed through our wooden cupboards and desks. ‘Oh that’s why they were coming out of the mounds; but I’ve seen termites, and they don’t have wings’ I challenged her. ‘Not all do’, she explained, ‘But every once in a while, if the conditions are right, some grow wings and fly out to find a suitable partner and establish a new home’.

‘So they all fly out to get married?’

‘Yes, something like that’, she said chuckling.

‘All of them? And each one makes a new mound?’

Most of them die, she explained, some don’t find a partner and some are unable to make a home, which is why so many come out at once. Out of the hundreds of thousands, only a few will make it.

None of the fairies greeted me on my walk to class the next morning. They had all vanished. But their wings had turned my path into a magnificent carpet of shining silver, sparkling in the sun.


Rain fairies

 

  • Termites are social insects like ants and bees
  • Each termite mound is like a kingdom with its own King, Queen, soldiers and workers
  • The winged termites are called alates. Once two alates meet and make a mound they become the Queen and King of that mound. They then mate and the queen lays eggs which hatch to then become the workers and soldiers.
  • Termites are very good at breaking down cellulose, a plant material that most animals cannot digest. This makes them able to eat wood!
  • They are very good recyclers and help in decomposing wood and other dead part of plants.

 

This article appeared in the Hindu in School on 14 December 2016.

 

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