The wonderful white ants.—Their depredations.—Their curious buildings.—I destroy them.—The soldiers and the workers.—How they take care of the wounded and young.
You and I, young folks, have been traveling together for a long time in an almost impenetrable forest of Equatorial Africa. We have seen many strange things of which we never dreamed before, and we have studied the habits of man, beast, and insect. At almost every step we take in that wild country we meet with new objects to gladden our eyes and cheer us in our lonely hours; and now I am to describe to you one of the most wonderful insects with which we had become acquainted during our wandering; and what I am going to tell you is based upon days of observation, which were carefully noted in my journal. The study of the termites, or white ants, was most fascinating to me, and helped to spend very many pleasant hours, and I hope the description of these wonderful creatures will be as interesting to you as they were to me. The only fear I have is that I shall not be able to describe the settlements and habits of these strange insects as well as I would like to do. I not only wish to amuse you, but I wish to instruct you.
First let me tell you that there was nothing in that great country of Equatorial Africa that gave me more trouble than these white ants. They were the silent enemies of which I was always afraid. I was in constant dread of them. Not that I was afraid that they would attack me, for they are very inoffensive to man personally; but they are the greatest sneak thieves that can be found in the world, and nothing but the most constant watching and care can keep your property out of their reach, and even with the greatest vigilance they still get the better of you sometimes, for their ways of getting at your things are so sly and so difficult of discovery that it is often impossible to find them out till it is too late. Frequently they came from under the ground, and the richest man in worldly goods may become a poor fellow before he knows it. I need not tell you that, as I had to travel with a great many goods of which these little sly robbers and destroyers were very fond, I had to be on the alert all the time, but in despite of all my watchfulness they would now and then succeed in destroying my property. Many and many a time they got the best of me; and, before I describe these wonderful little creatures to you, I must tell you how I made my first acquaintance with them. Of course, in the beginning of my arrival in Africa I was rather "a green horn." I did not know much, and I did not know how many sly and silent enemies I had to contend with; so do not be astonished at my mishaps. The first time I discovered that these white ants had destroyed my property I did not feel in a very pleasant mood, especially as my stock of goods and clothing was rather low.
One fine Sunday morning, which was, as at home, a day of rest for me, I thought I would dress up finely. I knew that I had a little pine chest where I kept some very nice shirts that were still fresh will the iron and starch of home. These were, of course, only put on for great occasions, such as the Fourth of July, my birthday, or when I wanted to impress a king with my greatness. In that latter case I would let my shirt fall over my pantaloons, for the effect, in the eyes of these wild Africans, was still more beautiful, and often I wanted to please them and not myself.
I unlocked the chest and opened it. It was empty—there was no mistake about it. It was certainly the chest, and the contents that ought to have been in it were written on the lid. Only a few days before I had opened it and put in letters from dear friends, for it happened to be handy for me at the time. There could be no mistake; but the letters had also disappeared.
A clear sweep had been made of all the contents of the chest. Not a single thing had been left in it!
Could the people have dared to rob me? No! Besides, the chest was locked.
Shirts, cotton pantaloons, cotton socks—every thing gone. I could not understand the mystery at first. I was puzzled, and am sure you would have been puzzled also. When, suddenly, looking carefully at the chest, I saw streaks in the wood at the bottom that looked queer, and which had an appearance as though the wood had been eaten up in many places; and, besides, the boards of the chest were full of little black spots. When I saw at the bottom the buttons which had been on my pantaloons and shirts, the mystery became greater. I got hold of the chest, and as I raised it I saw that it had been perforated in many places; the bottom was almost eaten up outside, and nothing but a mere shell was left of the plank which was the bottom of the chest. The mystery began to get clearer to my mind when a Native entered my hut, and, as he saw me, in complete bewilderment, still looking at the chest, he shouted, "The nchellellay have eaten your things."
The nchellellay were white ants.
I tell you I did not like it at all to have all my fine things eaten by the white ants. I wished they had been all at the bottom of the sea. Good-by to my fine clothing and my good show before the kings.
They had come from their subterranean abode right under the chest, eaten the wood at the bottom, entered through the crevices they had made, and then devoured everything. Two or three days were more than sufficient for them to commit the havoc. In fact, they are, in many districts, the pest of the country, and it is a good thing the natives have no clothing to take care of.
The incident I have just related was my first acquaintance with the termites, or white ants; but, believe me, it was not the last, and I have had my things destroyed by them many and many times since.
Now I must describe the white ants to you. There are several species of termites in the equatorial regions of Africa, each building a different kind of structure, which form most conspicuous objects in the regions I have explored. These ants are of wonderful diversity, both in the form of the body and head, and in their architectural tastes and the manner they build their shelter; but all have a common affinity in their intense dislike to light, and consequently their working at their building during the night.
All the termites are miners, and they live in vast colonies or settlements, which I will endeavor to describe to you. The "termes bellicosus" form buildings which sometimes reach the height of fifteen and twenty feet, and even higher. Just think of the amount of patience and perseverance it requires. How well built these settlements must be, for, when constructed, they last for years.
The size of the termes bellicosus is about half an inch or a little more. So, for the sake of comparison, let us for a moment calculate what sized building they would make if they were of the same proportions as man. These buildings would be more than a mile in height!. Would not that be wonderful?
I have studied the habits of four species of termites, of which I am going to give you an account. These were the mushroom-hived termites, the tree termites, the bark termites, and the forest termites. The latter is a species of termes bellicosus.
Now I will commence with the mushroom-hived ants.
This species forms the most picturesque building, and in some districts they are found by thousands and tens of thousands together, for the most part on the open prairies which I met during my explorations. I remember well the grandest sight I saw of the mushroom building. I had just emerged from the great forest into an open prairie, situated in a country called Otando, which is about eighty miles south of the equator, when, lo! what do I see? All over the country an immense number of objects, which appear to me, in the far distance, like gigantic mushrooms. These are scattered by thousands and thousands, and are built by what I have called the Mushroom-hived Termes. On the following page you may see an engraving of these buildings.
They have exactly the shape of a gigantic mushroom, the top of which is from twelve to eighteen inches in diameter, and the column about five inches; the total height is from ten to fifteen or eighteen inches.
After the grass has been burnt the country presents a most extraordinary appearance. In some places these hives are met with at almost every step. There are not two exactly of the same proportions as they appear at a distance, and, when you come close to them, their difference in roundness, or sharpness of their summits, or in the thickness of the column is manifested. Not only do they differ in shape, but some are very much larger than others, as you may see by the engraving before you.
Mushroom-hived termes and tree termites.
Some of them have three roofs, connected with each other by a column, the top roof being the smallest. See! and you may judge how strange such a sight was to me.
This Otando prairie might have been taken for a big country of the termites, and the buildings might have been called the cities and the villages. Now and then a few buildings, very close together, formed a cluster which might have been called a settlement; and, indeed, I have not made my mind up that these settlements, or clusters, do not communicate with each other.
Many a time I have wished that I could understand the white ants, and wondered if they had a language of their own, for such intelligence as you will see by the description I am going to give you I never met with before among the beasts and the insects I had studied.
After a few days of wonder in that far off Otando prairie, I made up my mind not to leave the country till at least I could learn as far as possible the mysterious ways of the white ants; and now let us go to work together, and do you follow me in my work, and I am almost sure you will be interested, and perhaps you will fancy yourselves really to be with me.
You will ask yourselves, of what are these mushroom-hived buildings made? They are built of a kind of mortar formed of the earth they eat, after it is digested in the stomachs of the ants, which, by contact with the air, becomes very hard, and able to resist for years the storms of rain and the powerful rays of the sun. The buildings erected by the different species of termes are constructed to protect them against the inclemencies of the weather, against their enemies, which are very numerous, and which include many predaceous kinds of fellow-ants, and especially against daylight; for the white ants can not bear daylight, and the rays of the hot sun kill them out-right, often in less than half a minute.
Early one morning I left the strange village where I was, taking with me, besides my gun, an axe; and so the people wondered what I was going to do, though none dared to follow me, as they were all afraid of me; for, alas! the plague had been in the country, and I was accused of bringing death and desolation with me; at least some believed it, while I am happy to say that many did not believe I was an evil spirit, who delighted in killing people that had shown me nothing but kindness. I remember how sad I felt to think that any of these benighted people thought such things of me.
I came soon to a cluster of these mushroom-hived buildings, and felled, with one blow of the axe, one of the structures, and I found that the base of the pillar rested only slightly on the ground, leaving a circular hollow foundation, in the middle of which is a ball of earth full of cells, which enters the centre of the base of the pillar, and these lower cells are eagerly defended by a multitude of the soldier class of ants, which I took first to be males, all striving to bite the intruder with their pincer-like jaws. On breaking open the ball of which I have spoken to you, which, when handled, divided itself into three parts, I found them full of very young white ants in different stages of growth, and also of eggs. The young ones were of a milky-white color.
I again set to work—one, two, three blows—and break and crush the upper pat of the structure.
What do I see? Cells which, for the first time since they had been built, had seen daylight. There were a great number of them, all communicating with each other. The inhabitants of these dark abodes were in great dismay. To and fro they moved as if to say, What is the matter? what has happened? who has been bold enough to demolish our structures?
These inhabitants were queer looking. A great many of them had tumbled down with the ruins and debris, and among them were many young ones and a number of eggs.
How eagerly I looked, and how strangely every thing appeared to me!
I must give you a description of the inhabitants, and the engraving below will give you an idea of their shape.
In the cells—queen, soldiers, and workers.
First, there were a great many full-grown individuals, who were armed with tremendous long pincers or nippers, which could inflict very painful bites; these I took to be males, but they were soldiers. You will see afterwards why they are called soldiers.
There was another kind much shorter; they have not elongated nippers like the soldiers, but have very bulky abdomens, and appeared to all purpose inoffensive; they were of a yellowish color, with a grayish tinge, on account of the earth or mortar they had in their abdomen. These were the workers, and you will see by-and-by why they are called workers.
These two apparently distinct species had tumbled down, with a great many young ones of different sizes—some so young that they could not walk—and a good many wounded by the breaking of the building.
After looking at these for a short time, I examined the cells which I had partly demolished. These cells were elongated, and no two were exactly of the same shape. They were about one inch in length more or less, and a third of an inch broad, all the cells communicating with each other by a tunnel or corridor.
Then I saw, at the opening of each cell that had been partly broken, soldiers who came from the inside to look on and see what was the matter. They only came to the light, and then retired.
In the mean time a great scramble had taken place among the white ants that had been thrown out of the cells when I demolished the building; and I shall never forget how astonished I was when I saw them suddenly wander through the scene of the battle-field, if I may use the expression, attending to their sick and wounded. They took no notice of those that were dangerously wounded, but carried away only those that were not beyond hope. Of course the dead were left; and how careful they were to bring into the cells the wounded and young ones between their pincers! I was perfectly amazed. Human beings coming out of a railway crash, or people surrounding houses that had tumbled down, could not have developed more intelligence. I wish you could have seen how careful the workers and soldiers were in looking for the wounded after the battle, in bringing in the wounded and the young!
They even brought in those that were too young to walk. The eggs were brought in also; all were carried into the interior recess of unbroken cells, and there my sight ended. Oh, how I wished to see more!
This transportation of the wounded, young ones, and eggs was but a short work. I could hardly believe my eyes, for so many had come to the rescue from the inside, which added a great deal to the strength of those who were not wounded outside, and they all went right to work with as much system as if nothing had happened. Of course I had missed a good deal that had taken place elsewhere by watching this operation. So I demolished another shelter with my axe, and paid attention to something else. First I demolished a small part of the building, and, as soon as the cells were broken, a few: head men or chiefs were seen; these were larger than the soldiers; each one moved his head all round the aperture, and then disappeared into the dark galleries, apparently without depositing any thing, for I looked on closely with a powerful magnifying-glass, and I could see nothing. But certainly there must have been a reason for coming, only I could not find out.
These very large white ants I suspected were really the males, but I could not be certain, as they had disappeared in their dark recess, where no human eye could follow them. The soldiers made their appearance, looked on, and kept still. Again, with the help of my powerful magnifying-glass, I could not see what they were doing. Then the workers came forward, and each of them turned round and ejected from behind a quantity of liquid mud or earth into the aperture. This liquid hardened as it came in contact with the air, and each little load that was discharged was put carefully on the top of the other in as business-like a way as human bricklayers would lay bricks in building or repairing a wall. Their work was managed with such precision that it would have done honor to the best bricklayer or stone-mason. I must own I was astounded. Though I had seen many ant-hills, I had never taken the trouble to know how they were made. The most strange thing was, that after an ant had deposited its load, it with great rapidity disappeared inside, following a line of retreat, and another, with as much quickness, made its appearance, so that there was no loss of time. A load was put on the top of another certainly far more quickly than a mason would put a brick on the top of another in building a wall. They continued working, till finally the breach I had made in each cell was perfectly walled up.
The question to my mind was to know if the same ants went away to eat more earth and came again. How much I would have given to see into the dark recess of the chambers! but I do not see how this will ever be done.
After a very short time, all the apertures or breaches that I had made were closed, so they felt once more safe in their fortress from their enemies and from daylight.
I had become so intensely interested in my observations that I was covered with perspiration. I must confess I had, during my years of traveling, seen nothing more curious.
The sun was going down very fast, so I returned back to the village, promising myself to study the white ants every day for some time to come.