Tony King, Las Cuevas, Monday 22 May 1995

Five and a half seconds. Five and a half seconds in a sudden tropical torrent and we were wet, very wet. We had felt it coming from inside our forest plot, the sharp drop in temperature and the stiff wind in the canopy. A silent glance at each other and we had gone, heading back to base. As we emerged from the forest the heaviest rain was just 100 metres ahead of us. We sprinted home across the clearing, that final five and a half seconds a first taste of the next Belizean wet season.

Having watched shivering as the rain fell, we were glad when it eventually passed and the sky cleared. But then they arrived, thousands of them, perhaps millions - a dark, living, invincible cloud. Despite having put up with the mosquitoes, black tipulid flies, horseflies and ticks of the Chiquibul forest, nothing had prepared me for this. In the space of a few short minutes, the view from our normally peaceful verandah was obliterated by a silent and clumsy mass of black-winged termites, excited by the first rains and swarming around our wooden building. Our floor, tables and chairs soon became carpeted in the insects and thick layers of their readily discarded wings. Increasingly I found myself covered in the inquisitive creatures; ears, nose and the vacant space between eyes and spectacles proved to be of particular interest. It rapidly became a struggle to keep them from venturing to even more intimate locations.

I retreated inside in the hope of a termite-free dinner. Settling down, I found my inside leg being gently tickled. With a heavy sigh and a momentary drop of my shoulders, I stubbornly continued to savour my plate of rice and beans, reassuring myself that this particular caste of termite did not possess the fear-inducing pair of jaws proudly exhibited by the workers we’d watched earlier in the day plundering the red treasure of a mahogany tree. Once in private, however, I was quick to find the adventurous termite, its frenetic squirming between the hairs on my legs keeping me well informed of its progress. In so doing I was dismayed further by the discovery from within my trousers of rather more wings than should really have been shed by that one solitary insect. I didn’t investigate further, though, as the risk of allowing even more termites in to my unbuttoned trousers far outweighed the peace of mind I might briefly have enjoyed had I solved that particular mystery.

With each room steadily filling up with the ever-more irritating creatures, I ventured away from the building in search of relief. Immediately, I realised that I was not alone in finding the whole affair rather overwhelming. A spider that had been greedily excited over the first half dozen tasty morsels to fall into his web had been forced to retreat into hiding as the mass of bodies slowly brought the whole structure to breaking point. A sombre passalid beetle, content to share his piece of wood with a few organised termites, had 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 dragonflies, excited by the sudden creation of several new ponds, found their ovipositing activities obstructed by an increasingly thick black mat of wings and bodies spreading across the water. And an army of leaf-cutting ants, so used to marching unobstructed wherever their defoliating activities led them, had suddenly found 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 a dead tree stump seemed to be benefiting from the whole episode, carrying away with them any victim that should settle in their vicinity. I didn’t hang around for long, though, as the over stimulated ants seemed incapable of distinguishing between me and a termite. It was a painful experience, I left wondering whether there really was that little difference between us in the eyes of an ant.

As dusk fell the cloud of termites subsided, but still the building appeared alive with the writhing mass of insects struggling amongst the piles of their own discarded wings. Returning to my room, it was not long before once again I felt my inside leg being gently tickled. As the evening passed I was continually aware of a gradually increasing number of pairs of legs finding sanctuary within my trousers. With my mind turning to devising ways of removing the termites, and the corresponding number of wings, without leaving myself open to further intruders, I resigned myself to a restless, and ticklish, night ahead.