At Londolozi we are treated to numerous amazing sightings of so-called “big game” such as leopards, lions and elephants, to name a few.
But every now and then an unusual encounter with the less noticeable creatures of the bush makes as much of an impact on your safari, if not more. Recently, while driving back to camp not long after dusk, we had such an encounter.
It had rained continuously throughout the previous night but had cleared during the day. The humidity levels were high as excess surface water began to evaporate, giving us the feeling that a warm damp towel had been draped over our heads. Stopping to listen to the night time orchestra of a waterhole we noticed a loud fluttering sound nearby. I drove around the corner and was greeted to the silhouettes of countless winged termites emerging from their mound. We jumped out of the vehicle and stood at the foot of the 1.5m high mound as millions of “flying ants” poured from the open vents.
What we were witnessing, without becoming lost in too much detail, was the annual dispersal of a termite colony. This is known as a nuptial flight, in which the reproductive members or alates fly off with the intention to breed and start their own colonies. These winged termites would eventually lose their wings, fall to the ground and start crawling around in search of a mate. Females lay a pheromone scent trail making it easier for males from different colonies to find them. Once the male successfully finds a female, it will latch onto the rear of the female where the pair will look for some soft soil in which they will burrow, mate and become the king and queen of a new colony.
Termites are sometimes seen as pests in urban areas due to certain species tendency to bore through the foundations of houses. However, termites are a vital component of the ecosystem because essentially they are the recyclers of the planet. Being consumers of dead or decaying organic material, termites break down waste and return nutrients to the soil. Their excavating habits also aerate the soil and provide nutrient hotspots for large trees to germinate and grow, such as the Jackalberry, where once established are host to a range of species such as birds, reptiles and large mammals.
Listening to the deafening whirr of millions of wings flapping together and staring in awe at a shower of flying ants disperse in every direction gave me a sense of the grand scale that nature works on. To put into perspective how many termites there are it has been calculated that the biomass of termites exceeds that of all the large herbivores in the bushveld. What we were witnessing was just the tip of the iceberg! It made me think about the hive of activity happening below our feet all day, every day, and all of it without us noticing.
My appreciation for this overlooked creature has grown immensely. Without these small gardeners life on the surface would be a lot less diverse. I am itching for the next downpour so I can perhaps witness another unusual quality sighting.