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

ACT NOW!

5 June! The date conjures up so many memories! World Environment Day—a day to remind ourselves and the world of the fragile planet that we call our home, and how best we could do our bit to make it a better place to live. This day marks the anniversary of the Stockholm Conference on Human Environment held in Sweden in 1972 when the nations of the world gathered to share their concern over human progress at the expense of environment. Today nearly fifty years later, the world is sadly not a better place. A cause for grave concern, but not too late to act.

As young Environmental Educators with a passion, and sense of mission to spread this message, we worked in many ways. One of our lasting campaigns was Act Now—to share every-day tips to remind each person to do their bit. From the early 1990s, and through the next two decades Act Now remained the anthem for the Matriarchs.

We began our communications with a provocation: “Are you doing your bit to help save the planet?” “What can I do? I am not a scientist.” “Who me I am only a kid.” “It’s not my business. I don’t work in the government.” “No. I don’t really have time.” And then came the Act Now tips.

Sharing a few hacks (as they would be called now!).

Food for Thought: Get the family to eat together—its saves having to reheat food (thereby fuel) several times.

House Proud: You don’t have to tackle grease and dirt with hazardous chemicals. Mirrors, glass and windows can sparkle when washed with soap and water and rinsed with a solution of one part vinegar to four parts water, and dried with loosely crumples sheets of newspaper.

Grandmother’s Secrets: Remember the shining vessels and fragrant house? That did not come from a bottle. Copper scrubbed with tamarind really gleams. Brass shines when cleaned with a mixture of salt and flour, with a little vinegar added.

Every Drop Counts: Longing for a cool bath? Instead of letting the water run till it cools, why not fill a bucket and keep it to be used when needed?

Winter Warmth: Explore the possibility of installing a solar water heater for hot water needs.

Monsoon Measures: Place a few bricks under the rainwater outlets to prevent the soil from being washes away during a heavy downpour. Better still direct the rain water to storage tank or collect it in a large drum.

Water Wise: Rain water is pure, free and abundant. Store it and use it to water delicate plants with. Brass vessels washed in rain water retain their sheen for a longer time.

Bright Ideas: Cash in on nature’s power supply. Arrange your rooms so that work areas get best advantage of natural light. Why be cooped inside when you can use whatever outdoor space you have (even the steps) to read, sew, chop vegetables, or just chat.

Learn from the Banana: Consider the banana–neatly sealed in an attractive peel which keeps the flavours in and the germs out, and when discarded degrades to enrich the soil. Avoid over-packaged goods. Bring indirect pressure on the manufacturers by rejecting such products.

Take Stewardship: Look ahead using the wisdom of past experience and knowledge of current developments to explore innovative ways of ensuring the well-being of the earth. Let us do what we can, how we can, where we can. It can make a difference. Remember—There is no Planet B!

–Mamata