THE SWARMING OF THE WHITE ANTS
LAST night the white ants swarmed; to-day fallen wings are scattered in thousands over the floor of the bungalow. What a strange phenomenon is this swarming of the termites ! It unfailingly accompanies the first rain of the monsoon, whether this comes in June, as in Upper India, or in October, as it happens in Madras. Scarcely is the ground thoroughly saturated with moisture when the swarms of white ants arise, apparently from nowhere ; and, if they happen to appear at night-time, they make for the light and thus invade the bungalow.
Each of these myriads of swarming termites is provided with two pairs of large wings. Nevertheless, the insects appear to have but little control over their movements; their flight reminds one of the tottering of a child when first it trusts itself to its weak little legs. The wings are ephemeral structures; their possessors are given no time in which to grow accustomed to them, for they are used for an hour or two and then cast off to perish. Notwithstanding this, they are beautiful objects; each is exquisitely fashioned, every one is the work of a master hand.
Nothing shoddy is turned out in Nature's workshop ; even organs which will be used but for an hour are finished with the utmost care. The mayfly, the winged life of which endures not a whole day, could not be more accurately constructed were it intended to last for a thousand years. The mollusc, that spends its whole life buried in the mud at the bottom of the ocean, secretes for itself a most beautiful shell -: a shell which man does not see to admire until it is cast up on the shore by the waves, long after its possessor has passed away.
The birds and the lizards, however, care nothing for the workmanship of the wings of the termites. To them the insects are merely so many fatted calves waiting to be eaten. The day that sees the swarming of the termites is for the birds and the lizards a red-letter day, it is their jour de l'an, the one day in the year when they are provided with more food than they can eat.
Hagen tells of a swarm of termites in America where the insects formed a dark cloud, preyed upon by hundreds of birds, which so gorged themselves that they could not close their beaks! Yesterday the swarming of the white ants took place in the evening, so the lizards devoured the lion's share. Many of these reptiles must to-day be suffering from internal pains similar to those endured by many a schoolboy on Boxing Day. Tiny little lizards were to be seen running about the walls of the bungalow, seizing and devouring termites not very much smaller than themselves. They found the wings most difficult to negotiate, and most ludicrous did they look as they went about making frantic efforts to swallow the insects' wings.
If these lizards had possessed a little knowledge of natural history they would have deserted the walls and made merry on the ground among the termites that had already shed their wings. But perhaps it was as well for them that they did not, for had they been able to devour a whole white ant at a gulp many of them would, ere this, have suffered the sad fate of the King of England who partook too plentifully of lampreys.
By this morning all the white ants had disappeared as mysteriously as they came. Nothing of them was left, save a few hundred thousand wings. What has become of the owners of these wings? Many were devoured by lizards; some fell victims to other enemies; a few have lost their wings and apparently their way, for they are crawling aimlessly about and are being rapidly appropriated by the black ants, which are careering along excitedly, looking at each wing they pass, to see if perchance it have not a fine succulent white ant attached to it. When the black ant does alight upon a termite he seizes it with his powerful jaws and bears it off in triumph to the nest. But what has happened to the termites which have not been devoured ? Surely all have not perished ? These are questions to which it is not easy to give a satisfactory answer.
As every one knows, termites are not ants; they are totally different insects. They resemble ants only in that they are social organisms that live in colonies, of which most of the members are sexless creatures. The settlement is composed of a royal couple, whose sole function is to produce young, and the workers and the soldiers, who conduct all the rest of the affairs of the little nation. The neuters have no wings. The kings and queens are born with these organs, but lose them early in life. The winged swarms that appeared yesterday are the sexual forms; they are potential royalties; each has in it the making of a king or queen, if it can secure subjects.
At one time it was believed that the object of the swarming of white ants was the foundation of new colonies. It was thought that the winged creatures paired during flight or immediately after their wings had fallen off, and then each couple founded a new colony. This belief has been somewhat shaken recently by Grassi, who has made a prolonged study of the termites which live in Sicily. He declares that nothing comes of the flight, that it is utterly destroyed, that each component individual is devoured by some bird or beast; not one survives. Further, these winged termites are very silly creatures; they never make the least attempt to escape from the lizards which prey upon them; they sit still and allow the little reptiles to stroll up to them and swallow them. Fritz Muller laughs at the idea of a pair of these helpless creatures founding a new colony. As well, he thinks, place a couple of new-born babes on an uninhabited island to establish a new nation of human beings !
It seems to me that Grassi and Muller are mistaken. The swarming of the white ants must be of some use to the species, or it would not take place. If all the winged forms composing the flight were devoured by enemies, there could be no object in the swarming.
Philanthropy is a virtue unknown in nature. The universal practice among the lower animals is, Every species for itself, and the devil take the hindermost. Each species lives for itself and solely for itself. I find it impossible to believe that every year millions of termites take to themselves wings merely in order that the insectivorous birds and the lizards may over-eat themselves. These considerations alone seem sufficient to disprove the assertions of Grassi and Muller.
Not a few naturalists think that some of the individuals which compose the swarms return to the nests from which they emerged, or go to other nests, there to be received as kings and queens. This theory is very possibly correct, although it is not supported by any direct evidence. Indeed, there is the objection that in every colony of termites a few individuals are found which are known as reserve queens, individuals which, if suitably fed by the workers, will develop into queens. But it is obvious that such potential royalties cannot be produced indefinitely without the infusion of fresh blood into the colony.
It has further been suggested that these winged forms, although so helpless, may possibly contain stored up within them sufficient nutriment to keep them alive until some of the eggs they lay develop into workers. These, directly they are hatched, will feed and look after the royal pair. In support of this hypothesis we have the experiments of Professor Perez, in which he actually succeeded in obtaining some workers from a royal couple which were placed in captivity unattended by neuters.
Thus it is possible that some of the winged forms which appeared last night have been received into nests which are already established, have set up a new dynasty, and are to-day being acclaimed as kings and queens by thousands of loyal subjects. It is, further, almost certain that, of all the termites that showed themselves yesterday, a few couples have paired, escaped destruction, and managed to find holes or dark corners in which to lay eggs that will produce workers which will one day attack our property. But there is no denying the fact that the vast majority of yesterday's swarm have perished.
This enormous waste of life is a very common occurrence among Nature's humbler servants. In the case of some creatures it is probable that, of many thousand young which are hatched, only one, or possibly two, come to maturity; all the remainder are cut off early in life.
Nature knows two methods of maintaining a species. One is for the parent to give birth to thousands of young and leave these to fend for themselves as best they can, trusting that, out of the multitude, a few will reach maturity and in their turn produce offspring. The other method is for the mother to give birth to but few young and to tend these few with the greatest care, until they become old and strong enough to look after themselves. In the end the results are the same, whichever method be adopted, but the former is the more primitive one; it is the more wasteful, and suited only to small and lowly-organized creatures.
It may seem strange, seeing how numerous white ants are in India, that naturalists know so little about their life-history. The percentage of bungalows in this Land of Regrets which are free from these pests must be small. Almost daily do we discover some fresh evidence of their ravages.
Their latest exploit has been to devour the most savoury portions of my cricket-bat! Yet we know so little of their life-history. The fact is that the conditions of the life of termites are so peculiar that it is most difficult to watch them. They shun both light and air. They are creatures of darkness, and black are their deeds. Except for the short time that they possess wings they seem unable to live if exposed to light. They do everything in secret. They discover by some unknown means a decayed beam in the roof of the bungalow; the whole colony forthwith set to and proceed to tunnel through the wall from bottom to top. If perchance they come to a hard part into which they cannot dig, they go to the surface of the wall and there construct of mud a covered tunnel to hide their comings and goings.
They have soft, succulent bodies, highly esteemed as food by insectivorous animals; hence their fear of showing themselves. When taken out of the dark, underground world in which they live, they will do nothing, and, as the naturalist cannot observe them without light, matters are at somewhat of a deadlock.
There are supposed to exist nearly a thousand species of termites, of which about one hundred have been described. Of the habits of three of these we have a fair knowledge. There is thus a large field of investigation open to any one who possesses the faculty of seeing through a brick wall.