My Apingi Kingdom - Paul du Chaillu

More about White Ants


After my return to the village the people began to look at me with perfect amazement and with great fear; they almost appeared to regard it as something supernatural that I should demolish these white ants' buildings. "What does the Moguizi mean" said the Otando people. "If he did not mean something, he would not have gone and stayed so long looking after these nchellellays." Poor people! they could not understand why I did go, in despite of all the explanations I gave them. They could not comprehend that it was possible for a human being to care how the white ants built their shelters and what they did.

So, early the next morning I started again. I took an axe with me as before, and very soon, if you had been close by, you would have seen me hard at work demolishing one of these ant-hills. It required several blows before I succeeded, for the material was hard, and difficult to break.

While I was busily but quietly demolishing and looking on at the cells and at the havoc I had made, and the great dismay I had put the ants to, I suddenly discovered that there was another distinct species of, white ant mixed up with the proper architects of the edifice.

The fighting fellows, the soldiers of this other species, were much smaller and more slender, and somewhat of a darker color, and commenced a conflict with the other "soldiers," whom I described in the last chapter, with terrific rage. I could not make out how these fellows, who could fight with such fury, could live together in the same building. On close inspection, I found that these slender fellows came out of cells with a yellow-earth, while the others inhabited cells of black earth like the structure. The yellow color was due to a coating of some foreign substance on the walls of the cells. The chambers inhabited by the slender species were smaller, and did not at all communicate with those occupied by the lords of the manor, but were inserted into the vacant spaces or partition walls between the other cells. They were smugglers, and had, no doubt, introduced themselves after the buildings had been finished, from under the ground. Pretty smart fellows, I thought.

What a fight! A regular battle. No enemies could fight with more fury, with more pluck and determination. It was quite marvelous to see how the soldiers of the one kind seized the bodies of the others with their powerful pincer-jaws. The fight became general, and the larger kind showed no mercy to its less powerful enemy. Here were two fellows squaring it—a powerful big soldier against a smaller one. The fight was short. The weaker kind was killed soon. The soft body or abdomen seemed to be the vulnerable point. The soldiers of the smaller and slender kind possessed also long, pincer-like jaws, and these were powerful and formidable enemies of the workers of the larger kind, for, though much smaller in size, they had far more powerful and elongated pincers.

Battle of white ants


Suddenly a worker of the larger kind seized a small worker in its last struggle for life, when one of these slender soldiers that was passing by ran to the rescue of its kindred in species, seized the larger kind with its pincers, and, snapping them into the abdomen of the assailant, twice its size, killed it instantly. The slender one then fell from the short pincers of the larger worker who had been killed, but life was extinct. The rescuer examined the body, and, seeing that there was no life, left it on the battle-field instead of carrying it off, went away, and disappeared in search of more enemies to conquer. In the combat, every where, there was nothing but fighting, and it was no child's play, for many and many lost their lives in the conflict; it was a regular pitched battle, and I must say I was perfectly astonished at the bravery of these white ants.

By this fight I discovered that the vulnerable point of the termites is the abdomen; it is evident that their powerful pincer-jaws are made for wounding and piercing, while the structure of the workers show their short pincers are made for the purpose of labor, and that they are not great fighters. Nothing astonished me more in those deadly combats than impetuous mode of attack. The weaker species knew the vulnerable point of his formidable enemy, who was frequently too busy fighting to know what was going on round it, and could not protect itself.

A farther examination showed me that the mushroom-like cap of the whole edifice I had demolished was composed of both black and yellow cells. This curious mixture of two species, each building its own cells in the same establishment, astonished me.

After this fight I went to see what had become of the buildings I had partly demolished the day before, and the operations of which had been closed at once by the white ants to keep the light out and enemies from getting in. My astonishment was great when I saw that they had, during the night, built the structures exactly as they were before I destroyed them. They continued to rebuild in the original shape, but during the daytime they only closed the cells. I noticed that now and then some of the workers brought in their pincers very large grains of sand or minute pebbles, and deposited them in the mud, and several of the cells I demolished were filled with these little pebbles.

Strange to say, the termites called workers have nothing else to do but to work and work, while the soldiers, apparently, have nothing to do. Now I must look for a queen ant. But, before doing so, I must try to tell you how their building material is formed. The earth which they eat, and which they use in building, as I have told you before, is seen through the thin skins of their bodies. This mud is mixed with a gluey matter through the power of digestion, and when it is ejected it gets hard, and with this material they construct all the buildings, tunnels, and walls which form their cells, showing a bright example, even to us all, of what time and perseverance can do. They achieve, mite by mite, the firm and solid structure of the entire hut, which stands against the storms for a good many years. Sun and rain are equally fatal to these white ants; thus it is necessary that they should build a hive impervious to light, heat, and rain. I have put white ants in the sun, and they were shortly afterward killed by its heat. I had often thought that each cell was perhaps inhabited only by one ant, but the great number I saw in each mushroom-like edifice makes it quite improbable that it should be so. Many cells are almost an inch in length, and about a third of an inch broad.

There are several species of white ants, as I have told you; some live in subterranean dwellings unseen by the eyes of man, and suddenly make their appearance through the floor of one's hut during the night, and devour all substances made of cotton or paper, for they are exceedingly fond of paper. They are very fond of eating wood, and are often found in dead trees, the wood of which they gradually devour, leaving but the outside. They must also have a great sense of smell.

One may retire to bed in fancied security, with no signs of white ants about, and in the morning wake up to find little covered ways overspreading the floor, and over the chest in which one's treasures are, and the contents of the chest partly or entirely destroyed. In a few days a store-house of goods would be spoiled. So the utmost care has to be used in keeping away the white ants. I was fortunate that my settlement of Washington was situated on a sandy soil, for in such soil the white ants can not live, on account of not being able to eat sand; and, besides, their tunnels could not be made in such a soil.

I was very anxious to find the queen—the head of the colony, the sovereign of the establishment. So I went to work, and was soon rewarded for my labor. I discovered a queen, and the engraving shown at page 123 will give you an idea of the queer shape a white ant queen is. After demolishing the building carefully, piece by piece, at last I came to a large chamber several times larger than any other, in which I found the queen. She was surrounded by the soldiers, which seemed to keep guard over her majesty, while workers were in the act of carrying away the eggs which she had recently deposited. As soon as the cell where the queen was had been partly broken, the soldiers appeared perfectly infuriated, and opened and gnashed their powerful nippers. I placed a little piece of wood as if to touch the queen with it; they threw themselves upon it, and with their nippers seized it and bit it furiously. The queen seemed almost in a torpid state; she was over an inch and a half in length, and she was continually laying eggs, the workers' business being to take these eggs to different parts of the building.

It was easy, at a single glance, to see that it had been utterly impossible for the queen to enter that chamber of the size she was.

This will bring me to explain to you how a queen is made.

Once a year a number of white ants in each colony, trained up from the eggs, come to maturity, acquire wings, and fly out of the hive or building on warm evenings. These are males and females; but very few escape, on account of the great number of their enemies, and those who do survive all dangers become the kings and queens of new hives.

The sole parents of a colony are a single female or queen, and a slender insect called the king. Possibly there may be several males, though this latter can never be seen in the confusion of the demolition of the building, and on account of the male being very similar to the soldiers.

As you have seen, the queen lives in a much larger chamber than all the rest of "her people," in the middle of the building, generally near the base of the hive, and does nothing but lay eggs, and the workers carry these to other parts of the hive.

The question naturally arises, How is the building first made? I suppose that the female intended to form a colony is seized by numerous ants, which carry her away, and from under the earth either begin a new building, or take her to a cell which had been built beforehand for the queen of a colony.

A queen is found in each colony, and, when once there, she never stirs, her chamber being devoted to her sole use.

At each end of the chamber of the queen are two holes, which communicate, like all the cells, with the other parts of the building, through which soldiers and workers can get in and out. After the queen has been installed there she loses her wings. The king, which I have never been able to recognize with certainty, loses his wings also. Then a wondrous change takes place in the queen, and from an ordinary winged ant the change, or rather transformation, becomes so great that an ordinary observer would not recognize as the queen the winged insect he had seen a few days before.

She loses her wings, though of course her head, thorax, and legs retain their normal and former dimensions; her abdomen begins to swell, and becomes so elongated and so large that it attains almost two inches in length among the mushroom-hived ants; among the large termites, to three or four inches. The head is almost lost sight of, and the creature looks more like a caterpillar than any thing else, and the exit from her house is so small then, that, even if the queen could move, she could not get out. She is imprisoned for life, and the number of thousands and thousands of eggs she lays is almost incredible. These are carried to every part of the building by the workers, while the soldiers keep watch over her. So we may say truly that the queen is the mother of her own subjects.

Besides the species of white ants I have spoken to you about, there are several others—the tree ant, the bark ant, and the forest ant.

I will speak to you of the tree ant  first. In the forest there is a species which makes its hives or nests between the ribs of the trunks of trees. The nests are from four to seven feet long, and six to eight inches broad, and are formed externally of several slanting roofs, one above the other. The ants that make these structures have long black bodies and white heads, and are unlike the mushroom-building ants. (See page 120 for engraving.)

The structure begins from the ground in a somewhat irregular cylindrical piece of walling or building about a foot high, but varying to as much as eighteen inches, and full of cells and galleries; then occurs the first slanting roof. The larger the structure; the more of these slanting roof-like projections it possesses, and they become smaller toward the top, the middle roof being the broadest; sometimes a few inches will separate one roof from the other; the roofs communicate with each other through the cells by the same cylindrical piece of masonry; the material of which the whole is built is very thick, hard, and impermeable to rain. The structure of this ant is not common in the forest; but I found several, and I could study the habits of their inhabitants.

Bark Ant.—Another much smaller species of white ant is found under pieces of loose dry bark on the forest trees, on which they feed. The colonies were composed of a very scanty number of individuals, and the ants were so small and obscure that it was not easy to detect them. They always choose trees that are old, and have these scales of loose bark on their trunks from place to place. It is under these small patches or scales that the ants live. They feed on the wood, and build covered ways, or rather tunnels, which start from the ground, and communicate to the different places where the colony has scattered itself. Now and then, scraping under the bark, I found that the settlement had moved somewhere else as soon as they had come to the green of the tree. The material which this ant uses to build its tunnels is not earth, but wood-dust. This proves clearly that these white ants, with, perhaps, the exception of one species, build their nests of the same material as they eat, but not till after it has passed through their stomachs, and received an admixture of glutinous fluid. The quantity thrown by this little species was so minute that I could hardly have seen it with the naked eye. They worked exactly like the others I have just described. I was unable to recognize the three distinct classes of individuals. There seemed to be only two sets—soldiers and workers. They worked very slowly when joining the broken portions of the tunnels I had demolished. This was accounted for by the extreme smallness of the particles of material ejected by them, and also by the fact that, in consequence of the tunnel being very narrow, only one or two ants could work at the same time.

Forest Termes.—Now I come to the largest, another species of white ant, much larger than those I have described before, and building far larger structures.

The shelters of this ant are found in the forest, and are rather uncommon; they are always found single; their light yellow color makes them quite conspicuous in the midst of the dark foliage by which they are surrounded; this yellow color comes from the soil which the ants use in building, and which they get from below the black loam.

Forest ant hives


The height of the structure I examined was four feet and a half, and the diameter, at the broadest part, two feet and a half; after breaking one sinuosity, I found the cells to be about one inch and a half in length, and about half an inch in height, each cell corresponding with the others by corridors or round tunnels varying from half an inch to one inch in length, and about a quarter of an inch in diameter.

In demolishing the sides, I found that the thickness of the wall was only one inch before the cells were found; but I found the earth at the top much harder than on the sides, as though the builders had put a much larger quantity of glutinous matter in this part of the structure.

After breaking away three inches of this yellow top of the nest, I suddenly came to another layer half an inch thick, full of little holes or cells, so small that they had no doubt been built on purpose for the ants to remain there alone, but for what reason they required to remain alone I was unable to discover; at that time there were no ants there.

Then with the axe I gave a powerful blow, and demolished another part of the structure, which disturbed the ants from their dark chambers. I saw there the three different classes of ants: the head men, very large, with whitish body and black head (these were but few in number); the workers, with short and thick body and broad head, but not so large as the chiefs; and, thirdly, the soldiers, not so large as the workers, more slender, and possessing longer nippers. These three distinct classes were the inhabitants of this curious structure.

As I was looking at these ants, my attention was suddenly called to watch their movements. The soldiers came, and, ranging themselves round the broken cells, took their stand and remained immovable. Then the workers came; each carried between its pincers a small particle of yellow clay, which some of them collected from the broken pieces, and which stood in my sight, while others came with their loads from the cells; there were sometimes two or three busy together at the same time and in the same cells. Each ant came and put down its particle of wet clay with the utmost precision, and then with its head moved it right and left, and by so doing succeeded in making the bits stick together, and so finished the wall. Each bit was put by the side of the one left by the previous worker, who had gone to fetch more, for here I saw the same ant go and fetch fresh pieces of the same clay, which came from the structure I had broken. I observed that they never went outside the cells to get their materials. No masons could have worked more systematically.

But how could the clay which I saw them take dry become suddenly wet? I took a small reed and advanced it quietly toward some; they made a spring at it (for these ants' bites are far worse than the others) and seized it with their nippers, and then threw upon it a little whitish, thickish matter, the same stuff that made the clay wet and ready for building purposes. During the working time not one of the largest class was in sight. The soldiers kept watch, and it was only just before the wall was closed that they retired.

I give you, on the following page, a picture of the buildings of the termer bellicosus, which often reaches the height of twenty feet or more, so that you may see the great variety there is in the shape of the buildings made by the white ants in Africa, according to the different species. It will show you that there is as much diversity in the houses of the ants as there is among those of different races of men. The difference is no greater between a negro hut and a beautiful stone house, than between the shelter of the white ant living under the bark of trees, and the large structures of the more ingenious architects.

Forest termite hives