Popular Science Monthly/Volume 27/October 1885/The White Ant: A Theory

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THE WHITE ANT: A THEORY.
By Professor HENRY DRUMMOND, F. R. S. E., F. G. S.,

AUTHOR OF "NATURAL LAW IN THE SPIRITUAL WORLD," ETC.

A FEW years ago, under the distinguished patronage of Mr. Darwin, the animal in vogue with scientific society was the worm. At present the fashionable animal is the ant. I am sorry, therefore, to have to begin by confessing that the insect whose praises I propose to sing, although bearing the honored name, is not entitled to consideration on account of its fashionable connections, since the white ant, as an ant, is an impostor. It is, in fact, not an ant at all, but belongs to a much humbler family—that of the Termitidæ—and, so far from ever having been the vogue, this clever but artful creature is hated and despised by all civilized peoples. Nevertheless, if I mistake not, there is neither among the true ants, nor among the worms, an insect which plays a more wonderful or important part in nature.

Fully to appreciate the beauty of this function, a glance at an apparently distant aspect of nature will be necessary as a preliminary.

When we watch the farmer at work, and think how he has to plow, harrow, manure, and humor the soil before even one good crop can be coaxed out of it, we are apt to wonder how Nature manages to secure her crops and yet dispense with all these accessories. The world is one vast garden, bringing forth crops of the most luxuriant and varied kind century after century, and millennium after millennium. Yet the face of Nature is nowhere furrowed by the plow, no harrow disintegrates the clods, no lime and phosphates are strewed upon its fields, no visible tillage of the soil improves the work on the great world's farm.

Now, in reality there can not be crops, or successions of crops, without the most thorough agriculture; and when we look more closely into nature we discover a system of husbandry of the most surprising kind. Nature does all things unobtrusively; and it is only now that we are beginning to see the magnitude of these secret agricultural operations by which she does already all that man would wish to imitate, and to which his most scientific methods are but clumsy approximations.

In this great system of natural husbandry Nature uses agencies, implements, and tools of many kinds. There is the disintegrating

PSM V27 D758 Termite mounds white ant.jpg
The Mounds of the White Ant.

frost, that great natural harrow, which bursts asunder the clods by the expansion during freezing of the moisture imprisoned in their pores. There is the communistic wind which scatters broadcast over the fields the finer soil in clouds of summer dust. There is the rain which washes the humus into the hollows, and scrapes bare the rocks for further denudation. There is the air which, with its carbonic acid and oxygen, dissolves and decomposes the stubborn hills, and manufactures out of them the softest soils of the valley. And there are the humic acids, generated through decay, which filter through the ground and manure and enrich the new-made soils.

But this is not all, nor is this enough; to prepare a surface film, however rich, and to manure the soil beneath, will secure one crop, but not a succession of crops. There must be a mixture and transference of these layers, and a continued mixture and transference kept up from age to age. The lower layer of soil, exhausted with bringing forth, must be transferred to the top for change of air, and there it must lie for a long time, increasing its substance, and recruiting its strength among the invigorating elements. The upper film, restored, disintegrated, saturated with fertility and strength, must next be slowly lowered down again to where the rootlets are lying in wait for it, deep in the under soil.

Now, how is this last change brought about? Man turns up the crust with the plow, throwing up the exhausted earth, down the refreshed soil, with infinite toil and patience. And Nature does it by natural plowmen who, with equal industry, are busy all over the world reversing the earth's crust, turning it over and over from year to year, only much more slowly and much more thoroughly spadeful by spadeful, foot by foot, and even grain by grain. Before Adam delved the garden of Eden these natural agriculturists were at work, millions and millions of them in every part of the globe, at different seasons and in different ways, tilling the world's fields.

PSM V27 D759 Termite mounds like obelisks.jpg
"standing out against the sky like obelisks."

According to Mr. Darwin, the animal which performs this most important function in nature is the earth-worm. The marvelous series of observations by which the great naturalist substantiated his conclusion are too well known for repetition. Mr. Darwin calculates that on every acre of land in England more than ten tons of dry earth are passed through the bodies of worms and brought to the surface every year: and he assures us that the whole soil of the country must pass and repass through their bodies every few years. Some of this earth is brought up from a considerable depth beneath the soil, for in order to make its subterranean burrow the animal is compelled to swallow a certain quantity of earth. It eats its way, in fact, to the surface, and there voids the material in a little heap. Although the proper diet of worms is decaying vegetable matter, dragged down from the surface in the form of leaves and tissues of plants, there are many occasions on which this source of aliment fails, and the animal has then to nourish itself by swallowing quantities of earth, for the sake of the organic substances it contains. In this way the worm has a twofold inducement to throw up earth: First, to dispose of the material excavated from its burrow; and, second, to obtain adequate nourishment in times of famine. "When we behold a wide, turf-covered expanse," says Mr. Darwin, "we should remember that its smoothness, on which so much of its beauty depends, is mainly due to all the inequalities having been slowly leveled by worms. It is a marvelous reflection that the whole of the superficial mold over any such expanse has passed, and will again pass, every few years, through the bodies of worms. The plow is one of the most ancient and most valuable of man's inventions; but long before he existed the land was, in fact, regularly plowed by earth-worms. It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world as have these lowly organized creatures."[1]

Now, without denying the very important contribution of the earth-worm in this respect, a truth sufficiently indorsed by the fact

PSM V27 D760 Single termite mounds or in clusters.jpg
"singly or in clusters."

that the most circumstantial of naturalists has devoted a whole book to this one animal, I would humbly bring forward another claimant to the honor of being, along with the worm, the agriculturist of nature. While admitting to the fullest extent the influence of worms in countries which enjoy a temperate and humid climate, it can scarcely be allowed that the same influence is exerted, or can possibly be exerted, in tropical lands. No man was less in danger of taking a provincial view of nature than Mr. Darwin, and in discussing the earthworm he has certainly collected evidence from different parts of the globe. He refers, although sparingly, and with less than his usual wealth of authorities, to worms being found in Iceland, in Madagascar, in the United States, Brazil, New South Wales, India, and Ceylon. But his facts, with regard especially to the influence on the large scale of the worm in warm countries, are few or wholly wanting. Africa, for instance, the most tropical country in the world, is not referred to at all; and, where the activities of worms in the tropics are described, the force of the fact is modified by the statement that these are only exerted during the limited number of weeks of the rainy season.

The fact is, for the greater portion of the year in the tropics the worm can not operate at all. The soil, baked into a brick by the burning sun, absolutely refuses a passage to this soft and delicate animal. All the members of the earth-worm tribe, it is true, are natural skewers, and, though boring is their supreme function, the substance of these skewers is not hardened iron, and the pavement of a tropical forest is quite as intractable for nine months in the year as are the frost-bound fields to the farmer's plowshare. During the brief period of the rainy season worms undoubtedly carry on their function in some of the moister tropical districts; and in the sub-tropical regions of South America and India worms, small and large, appear with the rains in endless numbers. But on the whole the tropics proper seem to be poorly supplied with worms. In Central Africa, though I looked for them often, I never saw a single worm. Even when the rainy season set in, the closest search failed to reveal any trace either of them or of their casts. Nevertheless, so wide is the distribution of this animal that in the moister regions even of the equatorial belt one should certainly expect to find it. But the general fact remains. Whether we consider the comparative poorness of their development, or the limited period during which they can operate, the sustained performance of the agricultural function by worms, over large areas in tropical countries, is impossible.

Now, as this agricultural function can never be dispensed with, it is more than probable that Nature will have there commissioned some other animal to undertake the task. And there are several other animals to whom this difficult and laborious duty might be intrusted. There is the mole, for instance, with its wonderful spade-like feet, that natural navvy who shovels the soil about so vigorously at home; but against the burned crust of the tropics even this most determined of burrowers would surely turn the edge of his nails. The same remark applies to those curious little geologists, the marmots and chipmunks, which one sees throwing up their tiny heaps of sand and gravel on the American prairies. And, though the torrid zone boasts of a strong-limbed and almost steel-shod creature, the ant-bear, his ravages are limited to the destruction of the nests of ants; and, however much this somewhat scarce animal contributes to the result, we must look in another direction for the true tropical analogue of the worm.

The animal we are in search of, and which I venture to think equal PSM V27 D762 Worker termite.jpgFig. 1.—Worker White Ant (natural size and magnified). to all the necessities of the case, is the termite or white ant. It is a small insect (Fig. 1), with a bloated yellowish-white body and a somewhat large thorax, oblong-shaped, and colored a disagreeable oily brown. The flabby, tallow-like body makes this insect sufficiently repulsive, but it is for quite another reason that the white ant is the worst abused of all living vermin in warm countries. The termite lives almost exclusively upon wood; and, the moment a tree is cut or a log sawed for any economical purpose, this insect is upon its track. One may never see the insect, possibly, in the flesh, for it lives under-ground; but its ravages confront one at every turn. You build your house, perhaps, and for a few months fancy you have pitched upon the one solitary site in the country where there are no white ants. But one day suddenly the door-post totters, and lintel and rafters come down together with a crash. You look at a section of the wrecked timbers and discover that the whole inside is eaten clean away. The apparently solid logs of which the rest of the house is built are now mere cylinders of bark, and through the thickest of them you could push your little finger. Furniture, tables, chairs, chests of drawers, everything made of wood is inevitably attacked, and in a single night a strong trunk is often riddled through and through, and turned into match-wood. There is no limit, in fact, to the depredation by these insects, and they will eat books, or leather, or cloth, or anything, and in many parts of Africa I believe if a man lay down to sleep with a wooden leg it would be a heap of sawdust in the morning. So much feared is this insect now, that no one in certain parts of India and Africa ever attempts to travel with such a thing as a wooden trunk. On the Tanganyika plateau I have camped on ground which was as hard as adamant, and as innocent of white ants apparently as the pavement of St. Paul's, and wakened next morning to find a stout wooden box almost gnawed to pieces. Leather portmanteaus share the same fate, and the only substances which seem to defy the marauders are iron and tin.

But what has this to do with earth or with agriculture? The most important point in the work of the white ant remains to be noted. I have already said that the white ant is never seen. Why he should have such a repugnance to being looked at is at first sight a mystery, seeing that he himself is stone-blind. But his coyness is really due to the desire for self-protection, for the moment his juicy body shows itself above-ground there are a dozen enemies waiting to devour it. And yet the white ant can never procure any food until it comes above-ground. Nor will it meet the case for the insect to come to the surface under the shadow of night. Night in the tropics, so far as animal life is concerned, is as the day. It is the great feeding-time, the great fighting-time, the carnival of the carnivores, and of all beasts, birds, and insects of prey from the least to the greatest. It is clear, then, that darkness is no protection to the white ant; and yet without coming out of the ground it can not live. How does it solve the difficulty? It takes the ground out along with it. I have seen white ants working on the top of a high tree, and yet they were underground. They took up some of the ground with them to the tree-top; just as the Esquimaux heap up snow, building it into the low tunnel huts in which they live, so the white ants collect earth, only in this case not

PSM V27 D763 All sorts of fantastic shapes of termite mounds.jpg
"all sorts of fantastic shapes"

from the surface but from some depth underneath the ground, and plaster it into tunneled ways. Occasionally these run along the ground, but more often mount in endless ramifications to the top of trees, meandering along every branch and twig, and here and there debouching into large covered chambers which occupy half the girth of the trunk. Millions of trees in some districts are thus fantastically plastered over with tubes, galleries, and chambers of earth, and many pounds weight of subsoil must be brought up for the mining of even a single tree. The building material is conveyed by the insects up a central pipe with which all the galleries communicate, and which at the downward end connects with a series of subterranean passages leading deep into the earth. The method of building the tunnels and covered ways is as follows: At the foot of a tree the tiniest hole cautiously opens in the ground close to the bark. A small head appears with a grain of earth clasped in its jaws. Against the tree trunk this earth-gram is deposited, and the head is withdrawn. Presently it re-appears with another grain of earth, this is laid beside the first, rammed tight against it, and again the builder descends underground for more. The third grain is not placed against the tree, but against the former grain; a fourth, a fifth, and a sixth follow, and the plan of the foundation begins to suggest itself as soon as these are in position. The stones or grains, or pellets of earth, are arranged in a semicircular wall, the termite, now assisted by three or four others, standing in the middle between the sheltering wall and the tree and working briskly with head and mandible to strengthen the position. The wall in fact forms a small moon-rampart, and as it grows higher and higher it soon becomes evident that it is going to grow from a low battlement into a long perpendicular tunnel running up the side of the tree. The workers, safely ensconced inside, are now carrying up the structure with great rapidity, disappearing in turn as soon as they have laid their stone and rushing off to bring up another. The way in which the building is done is extremely curious, and one could watch the movements of these wonderful little masons by the hour. Each stone as it is brought to the top is first of all covered with mortar. Of course, without this the whole tunnel would crumble into dust before reaching the height of half an inch; but the termite pours over the stone a moist, sticky secretion, turning the grain round and round with its mandibles until the whole is covered with slime. Then it places the stone with great care upon the top of the wall, works it about vigorously for a moment or two till it is well jammed into its place, and then starts off instantly for another load.

|} Peering over the growing wall one soon discovers one, two, or more termites of a somewhat larger build, considerably longer, and with a PSM V27 D764 Soldier termite.jpgFig. 2.—Soldier
White Ant.
very different arrangement of the parts of the head and especially of the mandibles (Fig. 2). These important-looking individuals saunter about the rampart in the most leisurely way, but yet with a certain air of business as if perhaps the one was the master of the works and the other the architect, but close observation suggests that they are in no wise superintending operations, nor in any immediate way contributing to the structure, for they take not the slightest notice either of the workers or the works. They are posted there, in fact, as sentries, and there they stand, or promenade about, at the mouth of every tunnel, like Sister Ann, to see if anybody is coming. Sometimes somebody does come in the shape of another ant—the real ant this time, not the defenseless Neuropteron, but some valiant and belted knight from the warlike Formicidæ. Singly or in troops, this rapacious little insect, fearless in its chitinous coat-of-mail, charges down the tree-trunk, its antennæ waving defiance to the enemy and its cruel mandibles thirsting for termite blood. The worker white ant is a poor defenseless creature, and, blind and unarmed, would fall an immediate prey to these well-drilled banditti, who forage about in every tropical forest in unnumbered legion. But at the critical moment, like Goliah from the Philistines, the soldier termite advances to the fight. With a few sweeps of its scythe-like jaws it clears the ground, and, while the attacking party is carrying off its dead, the builders, unconscious of the fray, quietly continue their work. To every hundred workers in a white ant colony, which numbers many thousands of individuals, there are perhaps two of these fighting-men. The division of labor here is very wonderful, and the fact that besides these two specialized forms there are in every nest two other kinds of the same insect, the kings and queens, shows the remarkable height to which civilization in these communities has attained.

But where is this tunnel going to, and what object have the insects in view in ascending this lofty tree? Thirty feet from the ground, across innumerable forks, at the end of a long branch are a few feet of dead wood. How the ants know it is there, how they know its sap has dried up, and that it is now fit for the termites' food, is a mystery. Possibly they do not know, and are only prospecting on the chance. The fact that they sometimes make straight for the decaying limb argues in these instances a kind of definite instinct; but, on the other hand, the fact that in most cases the whole tree, in every branch and limb, is covered with termite-tunnels, would show perhaps that they work most commonly on speculation, while the number of abandoned tunnels, ending on a sound branch in a cul-de-sac, proves how often they must suffer the usual disappointments of all such adventurers. The extent to which these insects carry on their tunneling is quite incredible until one has seen it in nature with his own eyes. The tunnels are perhaps about the thickness of a small-sized gas-pipe, but there are junctions here and there of large dimensions, and occasionally patches of earth-work are found embracing nearly the whole trunk for some feet. The outside of these tunnels, which are never quite straight, but wander irregularly along stem and branch, resembles in texture a coarse sand-paper; and the color, although this naturally varies with the soil, is usually a reddish-brown. The quantity of earth and mud plastered over a single tree is often enormous; and when one thinks that it is not only an isolated specimen here and there that is frescoed in this way, but often the whole of the trees of a forest, some idea will be formed of the magnitude of the operations of these insects and the extent of their influence upon the soil which they are thus ceaselessly transporting from underneath the ground.

In traveling through the great forests of the Rocky Mountains or of the Western States, the broken branches and fallen trunks strewing the ground breast-high with all sorts of decaying litter frequently make locomotion impossible. To attempt to ride through these Western forests, with their mesh-work of interlocked branches and decaying trunks, is often out of the question, and one has to dismount and drag

PSM V27 D766 Usefulness of lack of obstacles to hunters.jpg
"useful to the sportsman."

his horse after him as if he were clambering through a wood-yard. But in an African forest not a fallen branch is seen. One is struck at first by a certain clean look about the great forests of the interior, a novel and unaccountable cleanness, as if the forest-bed was carefully swept and dusted daily by unseen elves. And so, indeed, it is. Scavengers of a hundred kinds remove decaying animal matter—from the carcass of the fallen elephant to the broken wing of a gnat—eating it, or carrying it out of sight, and burying it in the deodorizing earth. And these countless millions of termites perform a similar function for the vegetable world, making away with all plants and trees, all stems, twigs, and tissues, the moment the finger of decay strikes the signal. Constantly in these woods one comes across what appear to be sticks and branches and bundles of fagots, but when closely examined they are seen to be mere casts in mud. From these hollow tubes, which preserve the original form of the branch down to the minutest knot or fork, the ligneous tissue is often entirely removed, while others are met PSM V27 D767 Termite tunnel utilizing the decayed forest floor.jpgFig. 3.a, tunnel; b, earth; c, shreds of outer bark; d, remains of branch. with in all stages of demolition. There is the section (Fig. 3) of an actual specimen which is not yet completely destroyed, and from which the mode of attack may be easily seen. The insects start apparently from two centers. One company attacks the inner bark, which is the favorite morsel, leaving the coarse outer bark untouched, or more usually replacing it with grains of earth atom by atom as they eat it away. The inner bark is gnawed off likewise as they go along, but the woody tissue beneath is allowed to remain to form a protective sheath for the second company who begin work at the center. This second contingent eats its way outward and onward, leaving a thin tube of the outer wood to the last as props to the mine till they have finished the main excavation. When a fallen trunk lying upon the ground is the object of attack, the outer cylinder is frequently left quite intact, and it is only when one tries to drag it off to his camp-fire that he finds to his disgust that he is dealing with a mere hollow tube a few lines in thickness filled up with mud.

But the works above ground represent only a part of the labors of these slow-moving but most industrious of creatures. The arboreal tubes are only the prolongation of a much more elaborate system of subterranean tunnels (Fig. 4) which extend over large areas and mine the earth sometimes to a depth of many feet or even yards.

The material excavated from these underground galleries and from the succession of domed chambers—used as nurseries and granaries—to which they lead, has to be thrown out upon the surface. And it is from these materials that the huge ant-hills are reared which form so distinctive a feature of the African landscape. These heaps and mounds are so conspicuous that they may be seen for miles, and so numerous are they and so useful as cover to the sportsman, that without them in certain districts hunting would be impossible. The first things, indeed, to strike the traveler in entering the interior are the mounds of the white ant, now dotting the plain in groups like a small cemetery, now rising into mounds singly or in clusters, each thirty or forty feet in diameter, and ten or fifteen in height, or again standing out against the sky like obelisks, their bare sides carved and fluted into all sorts of fantastic shapes. In India these ant-heaps seldom attain a height of more than a couple of feet, but in Central Africa they form veritable hills, and contain many tons of

PSM V27 D768 Galleries of termite nests.jpg
Fig. 4.—Galleries in White Ants' Nest.

earth. The brick houses of the Scotch mission-station on Lake Nyassa have all been built out of a single ants' nest, and the quarry from which the material has been derived forms a pit beside the settlement some dozen feet in depth. A supply of bricks as large again could probably still be taken from this convenient depot, and the missionaries on Lake Tanganyika and onward to Victoria Nyanza have been similarly indebted to the labors of the termites. In South Africa the Zooloos and Caffres pave all their huts with white-ant earth; and during the Boer war our troops in Praetoria, by scooping out the interior from the smaller beehive-shaped ant-heaps, and covering the top with clay, constantly used them as ovens. These ant-heaps may be said to abound over the whole interior of Africa, and there are three or four distinct varieties. The most peculiar, as well as the most ornate, is a small variety from one to two feet in height, which occurs in myriads along the shores of Lake Tanganyika. It is built in symmetrical tiers, and resembles a pile of small rounded hats, one above another, the rims depending like eaves, and sheltering the body of the hill from rain. To estimate the amount of earth per acre raised from the water-line of the subsoil by white ants would not in some districts be an impossible task, and it would be found probably that the quantity at least equaled that manipulated annually in temperate regions by the earth-worm.

These mounds, however, are more than mere waste-heaps. Like the corresponding region underground they are built into a mesh-work of tunnels, galleries, and chambers, where the social interests of the community are attended to. The most spacious of these chambers, usually far underground, is very properly allocated to the head of the society, the queen. The queen-termite (Fig. 5) is a very rare insect,

PSM V27 D769 The queen termite.jpg
Fig. 5.—The Queen White Ant.

and as there are seldom more than one, or at most two, to a colony, and as the royal apartments are hidden far in the earth, few persons have ever seen a queen, and indeed most, if they did happen to come across it, from its very singular appearance would refuse to believe that it had any connection with white ants. It possesses, indeed, the true termite head (Figs. 6, 7), but there the resemblance to the other members of the family stops, for the size of the head bears about the same proportion to the rest of the body as does the tuft on his Glengarry bonnet to a six-foot Highlander. The phenomenal corpulence of the royal body in the case of the queen-termite is possibly due in part to want of exercise, for once seated upon her throne she never stirs to the end of her days. She lies there, a large, loathsome cylindrical package, two or three inches long, in shape like a sausage, and as

PSM V27 D769 Female termite and eggs.png
Fig. 6.—Head of Queen (magnified). Fig. 7.—Undeveloped Winged Female. Fig. 8.—Eggs.

white as a bolster. Her one duty in life is to lay eggs (Fig. 8), and it must be confessed she discharges her function with complete success, for in a single day her progeny often amounts to many thousands, and for months this enormous fecundity never slackens. The body increases slowly in size, and through the transparent skin the long-folded ovary may be seen, with the eggs, impelled by a peristaltic motion, passing onward for delivery to the workers who are waiting to carry them to the nurseries where they are hatched. Assiduous attention meantime is paid to the queen by other workers, who feed her diligently, with much self-denial stuffing her with morsel after morsel PSM V27 D770 King termite.jpgFig. 9.—King
White ant.
from their own jaws. A guard of honor in the shape of a few of the larger soldier-ants is also in attendance as a last and almost unnecessary precaution. In addition, finally, to the soldiers, workers, and queen, the royal chamber has also one other inmate—the king. He is a very ordinary-looking insect (Fig. 9), about the same size as the soldiers, but the arrangement of the parts of the head and body is widely different, and like the queen he is furnished with eyes.

Let me now attempt to show the way in which the work of the termites bears upon the natural agriculture and geology of the tropics. Looking at the question from the large point of view, the general fact to be noted is, that the soil of the tropics is in a state of perpetual motion. Instead of an upper crust, moistened to a paste by the autumn rains, and then baked hard as adamant in the sun, and an under soil, hermetically sealed from the air and light, and inaccessible to all the natural manures derived from the decomposition of organic matters these two layers being eternally fixed in their relation to one another we have a slow and continued transference of the layers always taking place. Not only to cover their depredations, but to dispose of the earth excavated from the underground galleries, the termites are constantly transporting the deeper and exhausted soils to the surface. Thus there is, so to speak, a constant circulation of earth in the tropics, a plowing and harrowing, not furrow by furrow and clod by clod, but pellet by pellet and grain by grain.

Some idea of the extent to which the underlying earth of the tropical forests is thus brought to the surface will have been gathered from the facts already described; but no one who has not seen it with his own eyes can appreciate the gigantic magnitude of the process. Occasionally one sees a whole trunk or branch, and sometimes almost an entire tree, so swathed in red mud that the bark is almost completely concealed, the tree looking as if it had been taken out bodily and dipped in some crystallizing solution. It is not. only one tree here and there that exhibits the work of the white ant, but in many places the whole forest is so colored with dull-red tunnels and patches as to give a distinct tone to the landscape—an effect which, at a little distance, reminds one of the abend-roth in a pine-forest among the Alps. Some regions are naturally more favorable than others to the operations of the termites, and to those who have only seen them at work in India or in the lower districts of Africa this statement may seem an exaggeration. But on one range of forest-clad hills on the great plateau between Lake Nyassa and Tanganyika I have walked for miles through trees, every one of which, without exception, was ramified, more or less, with tunnels. The elevation of this locality was about five thousand feet above the sea, and the distance from the equator some 9; but nowhere else have I seen a spot where the termites were so completely masters of the situation as here. If it is the case that in these, the most elevated regions of Central Africa, the termite colonies attain their maximum development, the fact is of much interest in connection with the geological and agricultural function which they seem to serve; for it is here precisely, before the rivers have gathered volume, that alluvium is most wanting; it is here that the tiny head-waters of these same rivers collect the earth for subsequent distribution over the distant plains and coasts; and, though the white ant may itself have no power, in the first instance, of creating soil, as a denuding and transporting agent its ministry can scarcely be exaggerated. If this is its function in the economy of Nature, it is certainly clear that the insect to which this task is assigned is planted where, of all places, it can most effectively fulfill the end.

The direct relation of the termites' work to denudation will still further appear, if we try to imagine the effect upon these accumulations of earth-pellets and grains of an ordinary rainy season. For two or three months in the tropics, though intermittently, the rains lash the forests and soils with a fury such as we, fortunately, have little idea of. And though the earth-works, and especially the larger ant-hills, have marvelous resisting properties, they are not invulnerable, and must ultimately succumb to denuding agents. The tunnels, being only required for a temporary purpose, are made substantial enough only to last the occasion. And, in spite of the natural glue which cements the pellets of earth together, the structure, as a whole, after a little exposure, becomes extremely friable, and crumbles to pieces at a touch. When the earth-tubes crumble into dust in the summer season, the débris is scattered over the country by the wind, and in this way tends to increase and refresh the soil. During the rains, again, it is washed into the rivulets and borne away to fertilize with new alluvium the distant valleys or carried downward to the ocean, where along the coast-line it "sows the dust of continents to be." Herodotus, with equal poetic and scientific truth, describes Egypt as "the gift of the Nile." Possibly had he lived to-day he might have carried his vision farther back still, and referred some of it to the labors of the humble termites in the forest slopes about Victoria Nyanza.—Good Words.

  1. "Vegetable Mold and Earth-worms," p. 313.