We drive past these majestic mounds of sand without giving what’s going on inside much of a second thought. Little do we know that inside these mounds there is a whole colony of termites all doing their duty to make their specific “tribe” a success.
There is a complex colony in each mound consisting of workers, soldiers and a queen, and each one knows what his vital role is and each knows that they cannot exist without each other. The mounds are all built with saliva and sand that sets as hard as cement on the outside. This mound is not solid but instead consists of hundreds of tunnels and ventilation pipes.
The workers go out daily to collect food, which is mostly grass, and partially digest it. Then when they get back to their mound they excrete the partially digested food onto fungus gardens. Once the fungus has broken down the material, it is eaten by the whole colony. The queen and the nymphs of the colony are feed the fungus balls.
The fungus garden will not function properly if the mound is not kept at a constant temperature of 32 degrees C. The termites therefore build the mound with a chimney in the middle and side vents. The central chimney is for the hot air to escape and the vents are built into the sides so that the cool surface air can ventilate the mound.
Being a worker termite is a big responsibility. Workers are responsible for the maintenance of the mound, and they also have to tend to the fungus gardens, feed the soldiers and care for the queen and offspring. The soldiers are the termites that have large mandibles. Soldiers are there to protect the others and are able to squirt a liquid that is an irritant and helps to keep attackers away.
The termite queen is truly remarkable. She can live up to 50 years. She does not look like the other termites but is rather a large wormlike creature. She can lay up to 30 000 eggs in a single day. The queen also gets buried by the workers when she dies. Once she has died one of the nymphs will get fed a chemical that will stimulate her in order to become the next queen.
Once a year, usually after the first summer rain, alates which are flying temites, leave their respective mounds and males and females from different colonies will find each other and start a new mound.
Flying termites are a major food source for mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and even some humans. Termites are very high in nutrients. The aardvark and pangolin open up the mounds with their sharp claws and feast on the termites. Warthogs, wild dogs and hyena often occupy abundant termite mounds as a den. Snakes and lizards also make use of old termite bounds as a safe place to lay their eggs.
So next time you driving in the Kruger National Park and see these huge mounds of sand, you will know that inside that mound there is a lot of activity going on.