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Tiny Mischief Makers

Updated on December 28, 2011

Nearly everyone in Australia knows about white ants, because, although they are blind and very small, they are one of our greatest pests. They live in huge communities, and when they go out looking for food, the race of man is in trouble. They eat all sorts of important things like furniture, houses, paper, and telegraph poles-which goes to show how much damage even the tiniest of creatures can do, if there are enough of them.

They work silently in dark places, so that, unless you are on the watch for them, they can go right ahead without your even knowing that they are there.

Strange to say, white ants are not really ants at all. They are quite different in almost everything except the way they live in groups.

Insects that live alone, do everything for themselves, but those that live in groups spend their whole lives doing one special job.

The biggest section of the white ant population is the workers, another important section is the soldiers, and at the centre of the whole group is the queen. Her job is to lay eggs-and she lays thousands of them a day-while her ladies-in-waiting fuss around doing everything for her.

Another name for white ants is termites. That's why their large community nest is called a termitarium. In the north of Australia, these homes may be great towering masses of clay 20 feet high. Some of them have flattened sides with the ends pointing north and south. That's rather wonderful, isn't it? Then, there are white ants whose homes are down under the ground, so that you don't see them at all. Sometimes a termitarium is a knobbly mound way up in the fork of a tree. Other times it is one of those brown or reddish "anthills" that you often see in the bush.

But wherever it is or whatever it looks like, an enormous amount of work has been put into it. Inside, it is a whole maze of passageways leading to the nursery, store-houses, cemeteries, the queen's chamber, and so on. This is all made of tiny pieces of wood which the workers have chewed thoroughly before building with them. Then, the thick clay covering, outside, is put together grain by grain from the earth round about. Just think of that!

As you can imagine, the workers are very important members of the white ant community. But the termitarium also has to be defended against enemies, and this is the job of the soldiers, with their hard-plated heads and strong pincers. Man, of course, is their chief enemy, and the fierce little soldiers can't do anything against him. But they do wage battles against true ants quite often, which, strange to say, are another of their deadliest enemies.

Sometimes, though, the ants invade a nest so secretly that, by the time the white ants wake up to what is happening, the invaders have outnumbered them and are killing them off right and leftbetween one and two million of them.

Another occasion on which they are killed off in great numbers starts off as the most exciting day of their lives. This is how it happens:

There is yet another section of the white ant colony, quite different from the workers and soldiers. This is made up of males and females which actually have eyes, whilst the others are all blind. Also, to begin with, they have pretty little wings, and on a certain hot day in the year, the attention of the whole colony is upon them, for this is their day.

The workers get busy cutting holes right through the thick clay walls of the nest, while the soldiers stand around keeping close guard. Then at last the great moment arrives, and streams of the little winged creatures come pouring out through the openings prepared for them.

It's all very exciting, but for most of the adventurers it doesn't have a happy ending, for there are swarms of enemies lying in wait for them, and only a very few escape being eaten. These divide up into pairs, then do what seems like a strange thing. They shake their fragile wings right off-as a sign that the flighty part of their life is over, and that they are ready to settle down to the serious business of starting a new colony.

At first, of course, there is no nest or termitarium, but soon the new mother (or queen) starts laying eggs. These hatch out into baby white ants, which are soon old enough to take up their duties as workers and soldiers. First, the workers build a domeshaped room around their queen. Then they get busy with the other parts of the nest. It's a huge job, as we have seen- but the queen keeps laying more eggs, which hatch out into helpers by the thousand, and the work goes steadily on until the nest is full-size and its population about two million.

Now, here is a very strange thing. Man had lived on earth for many centuries before he began to grow crops and live a settled home life, yet there are some kinds of white ants which actually cultivate crops of "mushrooms" in special little garden plots near the nursery. These are not real mushrooms, but the soft masses of thread which would grow into toadstools. By constantly pruning these, the workers keep them down to just the right size for the nest's tiny inhabitants.

So you see, even though white ants are such a nuisance to us, many of the things they do are really interesting and wonderful.

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