By Awake! correspondent in South Africa
HAVE you ever seen natural structures like those illustrated on this page? Termite mounds are a common sight on the African veld. Some are shaped like narrow chimneys that sometimes tower over 20 feet [6 m]. Others are large domes of earth that provide a favorite lookout post for predators such as lions.
Inside each mound are numerous passages and chambers, which may be occupied by several million little termites. Some termites tend their own fungal gardens and manage to keep them well watered even during years of drought. How is that possible? During the 1930’s, when a severe drought devastated parts of South Africa, a naturalist, Dr. Eugene Marais, discovered two columns of termites, one descending and the other ascending in a tunnel. The little creatures had burrowed to a depth of about 100 feet [30 m]! They had reached a natural well. Thus Marais discovered how they managed to keep their fungal gardens moist through the drought.
A typical termite mound, explains Michael Main in his book Kalahari, “is believed to be the most advanced nest built by any animal in the world. . . . All seek to achieve and maintain 100 per cent humidity and an ambient temperature between 29° C [84° F.] and 31° C [88° F.], which suits both the fungus and the termite. . . . Every nest is, effectively, a perfectly air-conditioned unit.”
Now consider how these nests are built. The termites polish and then cement one tiny grain of sand onto another. Imagine how many millions of grains of sand are used to build one mound! “The mightiest structures man has built on this earth; the Pyramids of Egypt, London’s Underground system, New York’s skyscrapers . . . , compared with works of the termite, . . . are as molehills compared with mountains,” wrote Marais in his book The Soul of the White Ant. “Taking size into consideration,” he continues, “man would have to erect a building as high as the Matterhorn [a 14,692-foot [4,478 m] mountain peak in Switzerland], if his work was to be equal to a termite tower forty feet in height.”
But of what benefit are termites to man? For one thing, termites feed on dead vegetation and thus dispose of much waste. “By dragging the dry material underground, they not only reduce the fire risk but also fertilize the underlying soil,” states a signboard in Kruger National Park.
Perhaps you also agree that lowly termites qualify to be called ingenious engineers.