There are from twelve to fifteen hundred species of termites. The best known are:
the T. Bellicosus, which erect huge hillocks;
the Lucifugus, which have made an appearance here and there in Europe;
the Mangensis, whose soldiers carry syringes;
the Viator-one of the few which sometimes live in the open and cross the jungle, in long files;
the T. Longipes;
the Gestroi, whose fierce warriors deliberately attack living trees;
the T. Carbonarius, whose soldiers produce the mysterious rhythmical hammering noise;
the Sordidus, which live in the island of Borneo;
the Laborator of Malacca;
the Capriternes, whose jaws, shaped like a goat's horns, act as springs and impel the insect a distance of from twenty to thirty centimetres;
the Calotermes, which are the most backward;
and some hundreds of others that it would be tedious to mention...
One must remember that observation of the habits of this exotic and always invisible insect is recent and incomplete; that many points remain obscure, and that the termitary is heavily charged with mystery.
Observing the termite
If the termite finds its way into an entomologist's cabinet, it is as a rule to destroy that cabinet. On the other hand, to remove the contents of a termitary is no easy or pleasant matter. Hatchet-steel breaks against the hard cement of the domes, which have to be blown up. When at last the termite mound is opened, there is only the spectacle of a vast and fearful commotion, and the secrets of its daily life lie unrevealed. Besides, do what one may, one never can reach the inmost subterranean recesses that are hidden several yards below the surface.
Some termites live in tree trunks hollowed in all directions and furrowed with galleries that extend down to the roots. Others, like the T. Arboreus, build their nests in the branches, establishing them so firmly that they resist the most violent tornadoes: and the branches have to be sawn through to bring the nests down. But the classic termite mound, belonging to the main species, always exists underground.
Nothing is more bewildering, more fantastic, than the architecture of these dwellings, an architecture which differs in each country, and in the the same country will vary in accordance with the particular species, with local conditions and available materials; for the genius of the race is inexhaustibly inventive and adapts itself to all circumstances.
Watching the building of a termite mound is difficult; even under laboratory observation, because the termites will immediately spread
their cement over the glass or render it opaque by means of a special liquid. We must always remember that the termite is
pre-eminently a subterranean insect. It first of all digs into the soil, then hollows it out, and the hillock thrown up is merely an ac-
cessory though an inevitable superstructure, made up of rubbish transformed into dwellings which rise and extend in accordance
with the needs of the colony.
Looking at the termite mound
These mounds that teem with millions of lives seem from without as bare as a pyramid of granite and show no sign of the prodigious activity fermenting by day and by night. In the centre of the city, under a dome of chewed and granulated wood from which numerous corridors radiate, there is a round mass, some fifteen or thirty centimetres above the base, which, though it varies in thickness with the importance of the termitary, would if enlarged to human proportions be more stupendous and loftier than the dome of St. Peter's at Rome.
It is composed of thin layers of a rather soft, wooden material, which rolls concentrically like brown paper. English entomologists term this the "nursery"; let us call it the nest, as it corresponds to the hatching combs of our bee. It is generally full of millions of tiny larvae, no bigger than a pinhead; and the walls are pierced with thousands of very small apertures, in order, no doubt, to provide ventilation. The prevailing temperature is appreciably higher than in the other parts of the termitary, for the termites seem to have realised long before us the advantage of a sort of central heating.
How do they maintain this constant temperature, a matter of life and death for the termites, seeing that a fall of sixteen degrees would be enough to kill them? It can be explained by the theory of the thermosyphon, the circulation of hot and cold air being assured by hundreds of corridors running all through the dwelling. As for the source of heat-which cannot be entirely solar, as it would necessarily vary with the hour and season - this is probably due to the fermentation of heaps of grass or sodden debris.
On both sides of this "nursery," from which galleries lead to more elegant apartments, white oblong eggs are piled in little heaps, like grains of sand.
Next, as we go down, we come to the chamber which contains the queen. Like the adjacent rooms, it rests upon arches. The floor is perfectly level; and the ceiling, low and curved, resembles the domed glass of a watch. It is impossible for the queen to leave this cell, although the workers and the soldiers who tend and keep her go in and out freely. The queen, is twenty or thirty thousand times as large as the worker. This is apparently true of the more advanced species, in particular the T. Bellicosus and the Natalensis, for the size of the queen is, as a rule, in direct relation to the importance of the colony.
As for the average species, in a nest in which the worker weighs ten milligrams, the queen registers twelve thousand. On the other hand, in the undeveloped species like the Calotermes, the queen is scarcely any bigger than the winged insect.
The royal box is, moreover, extensible, and can be widened as the abdomen of the sovereign increases. The king lives with her, but is rarely seen; he is usually panic-stricken, and lurks timidly beneath the huge belly of his spouse.
We shall describe later the destinies, the misfortunes and the privileges of this royal pair. From these enclosures great corridors go down to the basement, where there are enormous halls, supported on pillars. The appointments of these are less known, for to explore them would require demolition with hatchet or pickaxe. All that can be ascertained at present is that there also, as round the boxes, innumerable cells stand one on top of the other, inhabited by larvae and nymphs at various stages of development.
The farther down one goes, the greater is the increase in the number and size of the young termites. There also are stores containing heaps of chewed wood and grass chopped into tiny morsels-food for the colony. Moreover, in case of scarcity, when there is a dearth of fresh wood, the very walls of the building provide, as in fairytales, the nourishment required; for they are made of excrement which, in the world now engaging our attention, is eminently eatable.
Amongst certain species, a considerable portion of the upper floors is reserved for the cultivation of special mushrooms which take the place of the protozoa we shall refer to in the next chapter; and, like them, are able to transform the old wood or the dried grass and render them assimilable.
In other colonies, actual cemeteries are found in the upper part of the hillock. It may be conjectured that in the event of an accident or an epidemic, the termites inhabiting such colonies, being unable to keep pace with death and to devour betimes the excessive number of corpses, stack them in heaps close to the surface so that they may be rapidly dried up by the heat of the sun. They then reduce them to powder, and so constitute a reserve of victuals with which to feed the youth of the city.
In contradistinction to the ant, which circulates freely on the surface of the ground, the termites, with the exception of the winged adults we shall refer to later, never leave the close, damp darkness of their tomb. They never make their way to the open; they are born, they live and they die without seeing the light of day. In a word, there is no insect more secluded.
They are doomed to everlasting darkness. If, in order to replenish their larder they have to pass over obstacles through which they cannot pierce their way, the sappers and engineers of the city are pressed into service. These will devise solid galleries made out of a mixture of wood and excrement that have been scientifically chewed up. The galleries are tubular when they have no support; but the artisans avail themselves, with extraordinary skill, of every circumstance that shall permit the least economy of work and raw material. They enlarge, straighten, level; every gap is rounded and polished. If the gallery runs alongside a partition, it will become semi-tubular; if it can follow the angle formed by two walls, it will be merely covered with cement, thereby saving two-thirds of the work.
In these corridors, nicely adapted to the size of the insect, sidings are contrived at intervals like those on our narrow mountain paths, so as to allow the carriers, laden with victuals, to pass without difficulty. Sometimes,when the traffic is dense, they keep one way for going and another for returning.
We must not leave this hypogeum without calling attention to one of the most marvellous and mysterious features of a world already so full of marvels and mysteries.
The strange, constant moisture the termites contrive to maintain in their dwellings, despite the aridity of the calcined air and earth, despite the relentless heat of the never-ending tropical summers which dry up the springs, devour every living thing on the earth and wither great trees down to their very roots. The phenomenon is so rare that some think, that by some process yet unknown to us, the inhabitants of the termitary had not succeeded in combining the oxygen of the atmosphere with the hydrogen of their vegetable food so as to replace, in the degree of its evaporisation, the water they require.