The master architects – Termite Mounds

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When one drives in Namibia, especially areas from the north and central parts of the country, you will encounter towering hard compacted soil structures sprouting across the landscape mostly pointing north. These usually attract our guests’ attention consequently with a question, “What is that?” They are termite mounds, better known as anthills!

Biology of the termites have been thoroughly studied and well documented, of particular interest is the significance of the termite mounds and the social organisation of termites that can be related to real human lifetime events!

Termite mounds are huge thermostats. Temperature and humidity is regulated by opening and closing of openings, which is done by the worker termites during night time, which is why every morning one sees wet patches of repairs done. Climatic change is a global concern, hence some studies in the Otjozondjupa Region reveal that structure of the mounds could contribute to knowledge on building energy efficient houses. This is one of the strategies that could help minimise and protect against the increasing impacts of climate change.   The human equivalent of termite mounds would be buildings that meet all energy, waste management and other needs on site. No other organism on the earth is known to engineer the environment to this level, definitely not humans!

For years, the term “true democracy” has remained arbitrarious or non-existent in the human race. Amazingly it’s real in a termite colony! The king, queen, workers and soldiers are at the same level, there is no superiority, but it is just division of labour, where each has different roles to play. The queen and king have their royal palace underground, mating and managing 2000 eggs per day. The army consists of soldier termites that are strongly built and armed (strong mouth parts), implying a  good ground force to fight other insects. However, termites have a poorly managed air force department for attacking bigger giants e.g. Aardvark, Aardwolf, Bat-eared Fox, insectivorous birds, and hence these prey heavily on them.

Once either workers or soldiers die during the course of carrying their duties, they send a stress chemical signal to the queen, who in turn produces more eggs to meet the daily labour and army requirements. Differentiation into either worker or termite is determined by the population in each group. The workers assignments include being undertakers (remove dead bodies to avoid disease spread) or architects (designing and construction of the colony structure). More importantly they are also mycologist (develop fungi) to feed everyone in the colony. Fungus spores grow into mushrooms which are a local Namibian delicacy known by their Herero name: Omajova. Omajova grow after good rains, offering a convenient food delicacy plus ensuring an income to local sellers who usually stand on the sides of the main roads between cities.

Termite mounds can actually be compared to Windhoek! Streets are in the form of channels underground. The population size is half a million to a million individuals. How do they counter the problems of overpopulation and spread the genes to other areas? Workers and soldiers change into flying forms which appear during the rainy season and attempt to establish their own colonies. 99 % of these do not make it as they suffer predation by a range of animals, more important eaten by humans as well.

The combination of the mineral-rich soils and saliva, and the organic wastes from the fungus colony make termite mounds a very fertile place in an often otherwise infertile environment. Thus termites are actually farmers too, as trees often grow on termite mounds, even inactive ones. In wetlands like the Okavango Delta termites are also very important long-term landscapers. Over the years, termite mounds rearrange the flows of streams and form fertile islands.

They really are incredible insects and as you can see, can be described as anything from builders, engineers, architects, soldiers, farmers and more. To come and see a termite mound and its inhabitants close up, join us on a Namibian safari!

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