TICKLED BY A TERMITE

Tony King, Las Cuevas, Belize, Monday 22nd May 1995

Today was destined to be one of those days. Even the macaws declined to make their customary early morning appearance, although on a day like today they could only be expected to be heard and not seen, such was the intimacy of the foggy reception. Having risen enthusiastically early, following an uninterrupted nights sleep thanks to the previous evenings gentle entertainment in the company of Trollope's Warden, the mist was such as to discourage any similarily early start to the days field work, so the first hour of the day was spent waiting patiently for the sun to clear forth its noble path, parting the unwelcome atmosphere and leading us onwards, and with due fortune upwards. Once hope was lost on this dream, we boldy made our own way into the forest, only to find that as would be expected on a day such as this, the damp and dripping environment caused our paper to go soggy, our ink to smudge, our camera to steam up and the snakes to uncoil slowly from their slumber. Perhaps it should be said that the first of few photographic attempts during the morning was of the type that has been claimed to tempt fate in the past; a mahogany tree in all its splendour and pompousness, knowing as it did that it was of the most desirable timber, unfortunately was being irreversibly scarred by those least majestic of insects, termites. How insignificant an organism could plunder the red treasure of this land! Having overcome the inevitable clouding not only of the photographic equipment but also of my invaluable spectacles to record on film this irony, no more than a dozen, or maybe two, of the beaverish creatures were collected into what could only be described in isopteran terms as a more than comfortably sized vial. I do not believe myself, but just possibly they themselves, or more importantly their uncaptured colleagues (that is to say of course their close relatives), knew of their coming alcoholic fate, and understood not the justification of the hope of a subsequent identification.

   Following the later than desired start to the mornings work, an even more abrupt end to the days science was forced upon us. As the clouds thickened rapidly shortly after a well earned lunch break, and darkness descended ominously through the canopy, a hasty retreat back to base was deemed necessary. Hurrying through a forest is never a simple matter, and hardly to be advised in most circumstances, but the threat of a tropical storm did not warm us inwardly, and the experience of working where the canopy descends to meet you rather than forcing you to make the opposite journey can be very rewarding in many ways, but a more controlled descent than could be expected from the fast approaching storm would be more comforting and decidedley less frightening, so we made haste out of the danger zone. On reaching the forest edge we had still to break into a sprint,such was our cautionary restraint, but with the heaviest rain just 100 metres in front of us the time had now come. Our surprising swiftness of foot over that final 50 metres ensured only a three and a half second exposure to the full force of the heavenly torrent, leaving us smirkingly satisfied with our athletic talents.

   Sitting well under cover we watched as the rain fell, and wondered on the possible use of the rest of the drowning day. A forest fire that had been burning slowly but surely away over the past week or more, respectful but not always obedient to our efforts to restrain him, was surely now beaten by the four consecutive afternoon showers, but an inspection to confirm this was an attractive alternative to processing data. However, today was the day that our precious vehicle's temperamental clutch finally decided that it's number was up, so that was that. It could not even be tempted out into the rain for a well needed washing, so yet more water flowed to this end, this time artificially controlled (if controlled is a word sufficiently loose to be appropriate for describing the use of a hose when washing a car, especially when the controller is in the state of mind that would be expected after losing his clutch).

   But to return to our forgotten termites, whether it be the rain that brought them out, or whether they knew it officially to be a public holiday, I do not know, but out they certainly came. Having put up with mosquitoes, black tipulid flies, horseflies and the more secretive ticks of the forest without resorting to repellent, this afternoon almost drove us to break from our restraint. How many termites were flying, or perhaps betterly described, flitting, around the entire area of our wooden home, I shall not even hazard a guess, for it most certainly would be wrong by many multitudes, but simply picture gazing from your normally quiet veranda out to the same view that you have grown accustomed to over time, but that today it is clouded, nay, obliterated, by the silent and clumsy mass of black-winged insects swarming from what you hope beyond hope to be a not especially crucial part of your wooden home. Endevouring to record a further story in the biology of your resident termites on film, you find yourself increasingly covered in the inquisitive insects; ears, noses and the vacant space between eyes and spectacles prove to be of particular interest, or at least the particular sensitivity of these regions gives such impression. Further, understand the sympathy you feel for your suddenly intimate companions, as every time you simply redirect one from venturing where it is really not fancied, not just one but usually all four of its wings drop off, albeit without obvious due concern to the now lightweight individual. However, the rapidly increasing frequency of such wing-falls begins to create a rather unattractive carpet on the floor, not to mention the tables and chairs, and the possibility of simply sweeping them over the veranda is made highly difficult by the still remaining puddles left over from the recent storm, within which the wings, plus many of the termites themselves, remain stuck and unwilling to be brushed aside.

  Retreating inside for your termite-free supper, you settle down to find your inside leg being gently tickled. Quite how anything can find its way to such places considering the amount of effort spent on tucking every item of clothing into the next item baffles many field researchers, but as ticks frequently perform the trick it comes as no great surprise that these termites should be able to do so aswel, especially considering that they are more than happy to shed their potentially obstructive wings whenever the need arises. As these thoughts pass through your mind, a sudden realisation causes you to be very thankful that this caste of termite does not possess the fear-inducing pair of jaws that those workers from earlier in the day at the mahogany tree exhibited, otherwise you may not be quite so willing to sit out supper before making way to a more private place to remove the culprit.

   Having found the adventurous termite, and retrieved rather more wings than should really have been shed by that one single insect, from within your trousers, your inquisitiveness turns to the location of the origin of the swarm. Convincing yourself that it could not possibly be within the beams of your home, you take a short expedition around the surrounding trees and dying stumps. As you do so, you find that it is not just you that has found the whole affair rather overwhelming; a spider that was openly excited over the first half dozen culprits to fall into his web, has had to retreat into hiding as the mass of bodies trapped in his deathly net slowly bring the whole structure to breaking point; a sombre passalid beetle, having presumably been happy to share his piece of wood with a few organised termites, found himself swept along in the tide of emigration and was now trudging unhappily on the wrong side of the bark, wet, cold and homeless; the serenading dargonflies, straight down to business following the afternoon's creation of small ponds in the grass, find their ovipositing activities obstructed by the increasingly thick black mat forming over their new incubators; and an army of leaf-cutting ants, so used to marching unobstructed wherever their defoliating activities led them, suddenly find themselves struggling over, under, and around the mountains of disorientated winged or not so winged termites that had fallen on their highway. In fact only the small red ants inhabiting the dead tree stump seemed to be benefiting from the whole occurence, carrying away with them any victim that should settle in their vicinity  - taking a closer look proves to be a painful experience, though, as the over stimulated ants seem incapable of distinguishing between yourself and a termite. Is there really that little difference?

   So having found several possible locations for your newly revealed termite colony, you retire for the evening to document the whole days affairs in literature. As you do so, you find that again there is a wriggling wingless insect tickling your inside leg. And then that there are surely more than three pairs of legs. And that as the evening passes there are increasing numbers of probable pairs of legs within the sanctuary of your o.g.s. And your mind turns to thinking of ways of removing quickly and without fuss the corresponding number of wings, of course theoretically only four for every six legs. And the question of why termites should be so willing to shed their wings in time of crisis when any unwinged creature can think of no better method of escaping danger than to take off and fly away raises itself, promising a sleepless night ahead. Oh how Trollope's Warden was right in valuing a quiet and carefree life.