Ecology

Rain dance of termites

Onset of monsoon, especially the first rains, is expected to evoke a very primordial sense of joy for all life-forms on our planet; but our crumbling urban infrastructure has robbed us of this instinctive pleasure and replaced it with a sense of terror.

To an urban kid, the first day of monsoon is no longer a day to discover twenty new types of insects magically appearing around the lamp out of nowhere, as the infectious stress oozing out of his parents stuck on water-logged roads has disconnected him from the vibrant and living world. And yet, unnoticed by most, the nature continues to play out all the scenes of the drama of life right inside every urban home.

For nearly hundred million years, long before primates arrived on the scene, termites have been celebrating arrival of the rain as a cue to start a near suicidal run for nuptial bliss. As this exciting event is also happening right inside your urban home, I am tempted to draw your attention to it.

Most people assume termites to be destructive ant-like insects that cause them to spend money on pest-control. Strangely, even though termites cause financial loss, there is very little awareness about the life-cycle of termites. So much so that, even though this potential destroyer of your wooden sofa seeks its mate to breed into a colony right under your nose, you could be completely ignorant about it!

Termites are social insects living in colonies born out of a single queen. Termite queen is the only breeding female (served by a king/male) of the nest that lays eggs that produce different forms, ranging from workers to warriors, as per the need of the colony. It is these forms of termites that we all are familiar with. But, in addition to the functional needs of the colony, termite needs to proliferate, and for that, once a year a dramatic event takes place.

Other than the non-breeding termite forms we know, the colony is also home to thousands of princes and princesses, the royal heirs capable for turning into breeding queens and kings. The first rain is the cue they eagerly await for. When the rain-water seeps into the ground, there is a sudden explosion of activity in the nest. The chamber containing princes and princesses breaks open and they start pouring out in their thousands. For mobility, they are born with wings (albeit weak ones) so they fly out en masses and flood the surrounding with their huge numbers. This strategy of responding to a common cue is extremely useful as it leads to all the princes and princesses from various colonies in one area to converge and find partners to mate and establish a new colony.

It is this nuptial flight of termite that brings fat and completely un-termite-looking winged insects into your home. Their arrival is subsequently noticed by your servant from the wings they leave behind. The pale yellow, wingless-butterfly-like insects that you see crawling on the floor are potential queens and kings that, if successful in mating and settling down inside wood or ground, will start a new termite colony in your vicinity, and possibly, enrich the pest-control man!

Before you use this information to exterminate the termite progeny, it is important that you also realize that we all live in an interconnected web of life. The termites that have destroyed your bookcase are also playing a big role in enriching the soil. We are now realizing that insect life around us is one of the biggest contributors to the ecological balance. We need to start recognizing the role they play and appreciate the complex cosmic dance of life we all are a part of.

DNA: 28/6/15

I am happy to admit that I have managed surviving till now with minimum effort as all my intellect has be used to avoid doing anything meaningful. As I needed to while all the free time I generated in course of being lazy, science has been my favorite muse that I have enjoyed company of. As an effort to kill time (in a way, to get even with it) one fine day I decided to write a science column, more for my personal amusement than to attract readers. After getting educated about the attention span of modern readers from my editor, it became more like a challenge to tackle esoteric subjects in 600 words that I have managed to remain interested in for more than a year now. I do not want to add my worldly profile here as these are ideas that need to be considered only on the merits they carry and not as an opinion of a certain human being.

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