While out repairing roads, our ranger team came across some fresh digging in a termite mound, which we assumed to be the work of an aardvark or even an aardwolf. Although not necessarily out of the ordinary in itself, it provided a good training tool for students and junior rangers at Sibuya.
What we found was particularly informative as portions of the interior of the termite mound were still whole, making it very easy to see where their food was farmed.
Termites are unusual and complex insects, which generally exist in very humid, damp climates that produce a certain type of fungus on which they feed. Here in the Eastern Cape, we don’t have that sort of climate naturally so the termites have adapted and created a unique method in which to produce their food source.
The worker termites go out and bring back grass clippings, which they place in a specific part of the termite mound, which is carefully temperature-regulated. It is in these larders that the grass ferments, and from this fermentation grows a fungus that the termites harvest and eat.
While we were discussing this process, a larger portion of the termite mound was spotted and our head ranger split it in half to show how the termites build their home. On splitting it open, we were surprised to see that the termites were still alive and were starting to rebuild from the tiny remaining part of the mound. Even more surprisingly, and very unusually, we were still able to find the queen termite tucked up in her royal chamber. A person in our group compared her appearance to that of a mopani worm with an ant’s head!
The termites reacted immediately to our intrusion, trying to protect their queen. We placed her back in her chamber and the termites immediately covered her with their own bodies, presumably to try and regulate her temperature. Queen termites react very badly to changes in temperature as they are used to a very carefully regulated environment deep within the termite mound.
Although the queen’s chances of survival were now pretty slim, we matched the two portions of termite mound back together and placed them in a sheltered spot so as to give them the best possible chance to survive. A queen termite that has been so exposed is very vulnerable and is almost certainly going to be found by a passing bird, aardvark, aardwolf or even a jackal.
This little group of termites are obviously very determined as two days later they had rebuilt the royal chamber and were still alive. We don’t know how long they will survive but are keeping our fingers crossed.