On the Wing, By the Thousands

It has been raining on and off for a week and more here. But yesterday, as I took a walk after the rain, I saw swarms and swarms of winged termites circling the lampposts. Even as hundreds swarmed, as many fell on the ground, lost their wings and started crawling around, hopeful of mating.

But in reality, most became a high-protein meal for the frogs that were out by the dozens, hopping and mating all over the paths. And should some land on a wall, there were the lizards, ready to give chase and swallow them up.

It was a full-on display of with predator-prey drama. An amazing sight.

It often rains, but it is not every day that these creatures swarm. What triggers this? When do they swarm? Why do they swarm?

Swarming termites, also called alates, swarm when their original colony has reached a certain capacity level and is ready to expand. This usually happens once a year. All colonies in an area swarm at around the same time, which explains why one sees the phenomenon of thousands of them out in a small window of a few days.

The swarms have both males and females. They live close to the soil and when conditions are right, they take to the wing.  Their sole job is to reproduce and set up new colonies, so once they are airborne, they find a potential mate, shed their wings, fall to the ground and mate. They then find a new place to start a nest.

The swarming usually happens on a day following a rain shower, when the skies are overcast, and the wind speed is about 9.5 kmph. Alates wait for the rains to have moistened the soil well, as damp soil makes it easy for the couples to build their nests, and survival rates are higher when there is more humidity. But even in the best conditions, survival rates are only about 0.5 per cent, which explains why there must be so many swarmers!

Humans being conditioned to think of other creatures from their point of view, and term termites as pests. But termites have a huge role to play in nature. They are nature’s best recyclers. Termites feed on cellulose and hence break down dead plants and put nutrients back into the soil. They burrow and aerate the soil, allowing rainwater to trickle in and enable the mixing of nutrients. Their sticky excretions hold the soil together, preventing soil erosion. Without all this, the cycle of life would not go on.

We marked Environment Day last week. A good time to remind ourselves of the role of every living creature in the complex web of life, and that they were not put there to be of use to us. Each has a purpose and meaning, beyond their roles in our puny lives!

Having said that, we can still smile as we read Ogden Nash’s verse:

Some primal termite knocked on wood
And tasted it, and found it good!
And that is why your Cousin May
Fell through the parlor floor today.

–Meena

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