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author has lived some years amidst his haunts, and only once enjoyed the opportunity of making his personal acquaintance.
Although the actual damage inflicted by the white ant in Natal falls considerably below the mark of the mischief that is ordinarily encountered in India, and in some other places, where the insect is also “at home;" illustrations of its subtle ingenuity are continually stumbled on. The author once encountered an instance in the up country district, about seventy miles to the north of the capital, which is quite worthy to be quoted by the side of the notorious case of the archives of La Rochelle, where the public documents of the departments were found one fine morning to have been entirely carried off, saving the upper leaf and edges of the volumes, which were required to save appearances and premature discovery. The author was on a passing visit to a friend who had occasion to refer, in conversation, to a matter of business which had involved a correspondence with his legal adviser, and went to a packet of letters which had been deposited on the mantelshelf of the fire-place to select from the bundle one memorandum, which contained the terms of an agreement. The bundle at first offered a somewhat unexpected resistance to the touch, as if the several letters had been glued together, and to the wood of the shelf; but upon slight increase of the pressure crumbled up into all but impalpable shreds. The white ants had walked off with the essential portion of the agreement during the night, and turned it to account in making some internal chamber of their nest cozy and comfortable ; but with great delicacy and consideration for social proprieties, and the feelings of the original owner of the document, had left the edges of the envelope to prove that the communication had been duly received. The depredators, in this case, had made their way to their spoil after their usual fashion, by means of galleries excavated in the substance of the wood of the shelf and its supports. The papers had been lying untouched and unnoticed for some few days. It would be a very interesting piece of insight into insect economy, if it could be ascertained how these stealthy excavators discovered the presence of this tempting bundle of documents on this precise and available spot.
The usual course of proceeding with the white ant in Natal, is to give simultaneous attention to the planks of boarded floors, where these have been laid, and to the timber supports of roofs. These latter are reached by galleries tunnelled out in the substance of the plaster; and in constructing these tunnels, small openings through the surface of the plaster are made from spot to spot, in
order to give the convenience of a ready discharge of the material removed by the excavation. Experienced eyes can readily detect the presence of white ants in buildings by these tell-tale holes opened out in the walls, and advantage is commonly taken of this weak point in the tactics of the stealthy excavators to do the only thing that is attempted in Natal to circumvent their proceedings. Arsenious acid, mingled with sugar, is introduced through these holes by means of quills. This generally proves to be a very efficient service of a notice of ejectment. The ants which come into communication with the poison speedily die in the runs; they are then either consumed by their friends and companions, or are so handled in the process of removal by their mandibles, that the poison passes through successive series of the invading host, and so kills off an incredible number of the insects. The still more efficacious plan of destruction, introduced at La Rochelle by M. de Quatrefages, namely, the injection of a mixture of chlorine gas and air into their burrows and nests, has not hitherto been adopted in Natal.
It is by no means certain, upon the whole, that there is not quite as large a balance of good as there is of evil, to the account of white ants in Natal. The "ant-heap" is of inestimable value in a land which is almost destitute of lime, and is put to a great diversity of purposes in the constructive arts, being an indispensable ingredient in all the best kinds of mortar and plaster, and in high demand for the composition of floors for houses that are not within the pale of joists and planks. Some animal substance of great tenacity is mingled in it with the earthy base. To the native Kaffir, the insect is unquestionably an unmixed good. The domestic economy of the native hut would be altogether unhinged in the absence of this most beneficent, although unconscious, ally. The Kaffir pottery is made almost exclusively of “ant-heap” and clay, which are puddled together by the women, and then moulded into the form desired for the vessel by placing ring upon ring. The floor of the hut, which is almost of the closeness and hardness of stone, is composed of the nest of the white ant, finely pounded, and then mixed up into a paste with water. This primitive form of concrete is laid very smoothly, and kept in a polished condition by rubbing with flat stones. In its entire state, the hillock is readily converted into a kind of extemporized furnace. In the year, 1858, Mr. Baynes encountered some native goldsmiths on the Zambesi, smelting the precious metal in fragments of the ant-heap pottery.
The periods when the males of the white ant swarm, are quite
festivals among the native races where these insects most abound, as the adventurous rovers at these times cover the ground, and are quite helpless, when first stripped of their wings. The Kaffirs, at such times, devour them greedily, as great delicacies, and indeed, have to compete with various other animals that are of a similar opinion in the matter. At these seasons of swarming, it is but an infinitesimal proportion of the myriad of insects sent forth that escapes the jaws or beaks of bipeds, quadrupeds, and birds, all eager alike to turn the opportunity to account. The ground is occasionally white for some hours, with a glistening layer of filmy wings, among which the recently stripped insects wander in the most puzzled and helpless condition, seemingly without any other purpose than to afford their numerous enemies a ready chance of snapping them up. The prodigality with which these swarms of males are thrown forth upon the land is certainly very astonishing and remarkable. Amidst many hundreds of thousands, the author never succeeded in detecting a single female. It looks very much indeed as if the general mass of these roving gentlemen was made to be eaten.
There is at least one large species of Termes in Natal that reserves its energies for thatch. It always aims at getting into roofs when it can, and of course finds the native huts very convenient for its operations. The worker of this species is of considerable size, nearly as long as the last joint of a man's little finger and half as thick. The author had a friend in the coast districts of Natal who had very ingeniously enlarged the somewhat too narrow dimensions of his house by building a large dining-hut as a kind of outpost to the dwelling, and a delightfully cool and airy haunt in the hot season, with doors and windows open to the fresh sea-breeze, the place proved itself, and as pretty as it was pleasant when it came to be, as it finally was, covered by one vast tangle of the blossoms of the blue Ipomea. Unfortunately, however, these thatchTermites soon domesticated themselves in the walls and dome of this extemporized chamber, and as they are by no means given to take good heed to their ways, at every false step they used to tumble down upon the table in a kind of insect shower, which was more than usually undesirable at the time of soup, on account of their very close resemblance, in all but the particulars of life and legs, to segments of maccaroni. It is a matter of general and traditional remark that a species of black ant which makes its nest upon the branches of trees is a ruthless enemy of these thatch invaders; and that the Termites never remain long within reach of this antagonist.
The nest of the tree-ant is simply a round ball of consolidated earth fastened upon a branch. If one of these nests is cut, with its branch, from the tree, and the end of the branch stuck into the thatch infested by the Termites, the Termites almost immediately disappear. This method of exorcism was practised at last in the case of the dining-hut, and after its adoption the showers of animated maccaroni during soup-time certainly ceased.
There is another thatch, or, in this case rather straw, depredator in Natal ; a powerful, active fellow, who works above-board, and runs about with his gatherings in open daylight, and who is therefore probably a true ant, and not a Termes. He may constantly be encountered in the up-country district running with pieces of straw three and four inches long, held erect like standards, and balanced with admirable precision. The opening of his nest is a small round orifice lying on the general surface of the ground, and at this entrance it is no uncommon thing to find him considerably embarassed by volunteer assistance. A second ant seizes the opposite extremity of the straw just as he is about to disappear into the mouth of his cavern with his treasure, and then, as each is impelled with the same idea and purpose of getting his end into the narrow hole, an unmistakeable difficulty occurs, which only terminates after a protracted struggle, where victory inclines alternately opposite ways, in one of the competitors in some happy moment disappearing backward into the hole, still holding fast to his own particular extremity. The long straw tilts up at the opposite end, and after a wriggle or two follows its leader and disappears also, and the assistant carrier stands for a little while over the hole, waving his antennæ and looking down with gestures that unmistakeably mean, “All right, old fellow; there you are at last.”
The black ants of Natal are unquestionably stingers, either Myrmicæ or Poneræ, and therefore there is no doubt the unarmed thatch-Termes exercises a very wise discretion to retire from the field when they enter the arena.
The author encountered one personal experience which leaves him in complete sympathy with the Termites in this particular. He was, upon one occasion, riding on the coast in the wild country beyond the southern frontier of No-man'sland, when one bright afternoon coming conveniently upon the bole of an overthrown tree which looked very tempting in the sunshine, he dismounted, and throwing the bridle over his horse's head, sat down upon the tree for a little rest from the equestrian exercise, and soon fell into a brown study, looking out upon the breakers of the sea curling over a sand-bar that just here closes in the mouth of a
small river and converts it into a lagoon of broad smooth water. His reverie, however, was disturbed in about three minutes by a sensation that exactly resembled the feeling caused by a good active blister in the second stage of its operation. Starting up from his repose, he found the trunk of the tree alive with an agitated mass of black little ruffians who were running to and fro in a state of infuriated excitement, brandishing their antenna and snapping their mandibles, indignant at the use that had been made of their domicile unasked. The tree was unfortunately the select nest of a very populous community, which no doubt had sentinels posted, but which certainly had neglected the correllative precaution of the further posting of notices that all “ trespassers were vesicated," which really good breeding required. The author was some hours before the last individual of the large band of captives made in his hasty retreat was placed hors de combat as he emerged, still bristling with warlike ardour, from one of the pockets of his riding-dress.
There is an ant in Natal which is very much smaller than even the ordinary white ant, but in reality much more troublesome to the colonial housekeeper. It is a pigmy red emmet, which makes its nest as close to the kitchen-fire as it can, and which always has one eye open upon the larder. Wherever there is anything eatable, this ant appears in crowds. It gets into the tempting caverns of the fermented bread, covers the meat, thickens the milk, and is consumed in vast hecatombs with every mouthful of the dinner. dead insect drops upon the floor, in five minutes it is covered with these prowlers as a dead ox in the open veldt is covered by the vultures. Upon one occasion the author had a new dressing-table placed in & bed-room, where there had been no particular sign of the presence of these insects. On the following morning the table was nearly covered by an even film of these emmets, with a settled establishment of comers and goers moving in opposite streams up and down the legs. The cabinet-maker had carefully oiled the piece of furniture, before carrying it home, to bring out the grain of the yellow wood, and hinc illæ formicæ! Some stray explorers had discovered the oil during the night, and given notice in the kitchen.
There is only one possible way in which these active marauders can be circumvented. The author has fought long campaigns with them, which certainly not less than twenty volumes could record if Mr. Kinglake were the historian, and engaged to chronicle the successive charges of the brigades, and the conclusion which he has derived from his experience in the warfare is that nothing else will do but the stern and resolute refusal of supplies. No scrap of any