Some years ago, on a visit to the beautiful island nation of Bali, Indonesia, I witnessed a “night of the flies” from the relative protection of my cliffside terrace in Ubud. Suddenly the sky darkened with millions of these creatures madly flapping about in a sex-crazed aerial frenzy. Next morning, the terrace was covered with cast-off bronze-colored wings and a few staggering stragglers about to become supper for my little frog friends.
At the time I‘d no idea what I was witnessing, other than what I thought was a large, simultaneous hatching and mating flight of some kind of insect.
Years later, this time on a visit to the southern zone of Costa Rica during the rainy season — while enjoying a touch of rum on the veranda — the very same thing happened! It had been raining rather heavily much of the afternoon, but now the sun was out and just about to settle down behind the western slopes. Then the sky erupted! Hordes of flapping insects surrounded us, oblivious to our presence. My friend Jan Hart, who’d lived there for a dozen years, shrugged, saying, “Keep your mouth closed unless you want to swallow some flying termites.”
Flying termites? Yikes! If you’ve ever had these critters eat part of your house, you know that creepy-crawly sensation up the spine I was feeling. But over the years I’ve been to Costa Rica many times — including one trip where a guide took us into the jungle and made us each actually eat a couple of arboreal termites. Yes, they do taste just like peanuts. It’s reassuring to know that if you’re ever lost in the jungle, there will be something abundant and delicious to survive on.
Termites are highly social insects. They live and work together in cooperative colonies, with physically different members performing different specific functions. Soldiers are brawny wingless guys with strong jaws that defend the colony against invading insects. Workers — the most numerous — are also wingless and perform most of the work of the colony. With specialized microbes in their guts, able to break down tough cellulose and cell walls, they feed the rest of the colony!
The reproductives are dark brown to black — each with two pairs of wings more than twice the length of their bodies. When colonies reach critical mass, reproductive males and females swarm from the nest — often after heavy rain — to mate in the air, shed their wings, and start new colonies. A female will become the queen of the colony, continually laying eggs to produce workers and soldiers. The workers are the destroyers. But that’s a human judgment! Their job is to feed the growing colony and they do so tirelessly and without complaint.
Termites aren’t all bad! And they’re quite valuable to scientists who have found — in studies funded by the US Department of Energy — that the digestive systems of Costa Rican termites provide the formula to eventually create bio-fuels. (Try to wrap your mind around the quantity of termite gut output it would take to gas up your car!) And in other good news for the economy, termites also create construction and remodeling jobs!