Ever heard of a soul organism? Fascinating facts about termites

If you visit Arathusa, you are bound to come across large mounds of sand of all shapes and sizes when on game drives or guided bush walks in the wilderness. These are, in fact, fascinating eco systems created by macro-termites – the predominant termite in the area.

These termites play a fundamental role in the environment, both intrinsically and structurally. Many animals rely on termites as an important food source, and as a home.

Very often we will find leopards and lions perched on top of termite mound as they make for brilliant vantage points to spot potential prey or threat.

Some of the migratory birds that visit Arathusa during the summer months come from a great distance for these super nutritious insects. Take the Steppe Eagle – a large brown eagle – which flies all the way from the steps of Russia to indulge in the termite feast.

Steppe eagle feasting on termites– Steppe eagle feasting on termites

The termite mound and the termites within are considered a soul organism – one big living organism that keeps growing but never moves. The mound you see above the ground is in fact only a third of the structure, and the remaining two thirds are below the earth’s surface (very much like an iceberg).

Inside the termite mound, the queen – accompanied by her king – lives near the bottom in the royal chambers. She is nine times larger than the average termite, and lays up to 30 000 eggs a day. She lives an average of 40 years, and only mates with the king. The queen gives birth to soldiers and workers according to the needs of her body (mound). She will also give birth to a batch of royal eggs – the future kings and queens (alats). They will take flight in our summer with weak wings that are not meant to take them very far. Once the wings fall off and the insects land, the female will start giving off a chemical pheromone which is irresistible to the males. She will turn down many before she finds the right one, after which they will dig a hole and mate to begin their colony.

Macrotermie King & Queen– Macrotermie King & Queen

Termite mounds, hard structures formed from the bond between soil and saliva, essentially represent the body of the queen. Her soldiers and workers represent its blood, with red and white blood cells respectively repairing and protecting – just like the soldiers and workers. The queen is the engine (or heart) of this soul organism, and runs everything through chemical pheromones.

Macrotermie workerMacrotermie worker

Macrotermie soldierMacrotermie soldier

Termites play an important part in soil fertility. They mix inorganic particles, such as sand stone and clay, with organic bits of leaf litter and grass. This helps the soil to retain nutrients and resist erosion. Termites take dead grass and leaf matter down into the mound, where they ingest it before secreting it to form a fungus. They then harvest and create these fungus gardens, used to feed themselves and their queen.

A vast number of animals use termite mounds as den sites and permanent homes. Most of the larger holes in a termite mound are made by aardvarks – powerful diggers that feed on termites and live in the mounds. Other animal species – including warthogs, honey badgers, civets, snakes, mongooses and jackals – will use the structures as permanent residences. Some of the larger predators – like leopard, wild dog and hyena – will use them as den sites as they are secure areas to hide their youngsters away while they are out foraging, hunting or patrolling.

When you next visit Arathusa Safari Lodge, be sure to go on a bush walk for a detailed and hands-on experience with these amazing creatures and their giant homes.

Words by: Ranger Jordan Jacobson

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