“You care for walvis (Marathi for termites),” he said and jumped out of his seat to shake my hands.
It happened after I had informed a group which had assembled in Saguna Baug, Neral stating that I live in harmony with the termites and has never tried to exterminate them, as the case is with most farmers or farm owners.
The one who shook my hands was none other than Krishibhushan Chandrasekhar Bhadavsale, the man who has innovated the sustainable and climate-resilient Saguna Rice Technique. Complimenting he remarked: “It’s rare to come across one who loves termites and you’re among the few.”
They are the unloved freaks of the social insect world—the termites. While bees are praised for their pollination skills and ants lauded for their industry, the termites munch their way through everything — our libraries, our homes, and our farms. But Lisa Margonelli’s mesmerizing book, Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology makes clear, we have got termites all wrong.
For a start these “white ants” aren’t ants at all but cockroaches that evolution has shrunk blinded and turned surprisingly social. The termite bucks basic biological rules and thumbs its nose at science as much as it does homeowners. But this mystery makes termites fascinating to the author and a motley crew of multidisciplinary scientists who are all trying to crack the termite code and put it to good use. As we stand “on the border of our natural history and an unnatural future,” this masterly book is a timely, thought-provoking exploration of what it means to be human — as much as what it means to be termite — and a penetrating look at the moral challenges of our ongoing technological revolution.
Utter the word ‘termites’ and you’re likely to hear orchard growers curse them. In the Konkan belt of Maharashtra it is considered a menace and one needs to live with or without, as you prefer to. Every means available is used to exterminate them but all efforts fail miserably. For they return after a brief hiatus. We tend to forget that they have been around much before man descended. In fact, they share a relationship which is as old as this planet.
Having been a weekend farmer for over a decade now let me share a secret with you: I know how soil is made. The process begins sometimes in early October when the soil is not moist enough as the rains are now a memory. The twigs, fallen branches, dead leaves, fruit waste and all have become the manna for the termites.
Watch carefully and you’re likely to see what termites do to the litter? It envelopes the leaf litter, twigs etc. with a film of soil and within months the same disintegrates to become a fine powder, like sawdust. And ultimately becomes soil.
In the initial years, I too felt that there is something wrong with my soil but I played the game of caution: watching the organic matter turn to soil, as days’ progress to become months and as seasons come and go. I have been restraining myself from any kind of intervention which is likely to disturb the ecological cycle.
Once the rains come, the termites go into hibernation for the moisture is its arch enemy. But I do take precaution so that termites do not attack my fruit-bearing trees by applying a paste of lime and copper sulfate, beginning with the base of the tree trunk and reaching a height of a metre or so. Also in order to fool the termites, I make it a point to spread leaf litter, broken branches, twigs all over the place to lure and keep them busy to do what they are good at.
To consider termites’ plunderers is unfair. They are the most important animals in a forest ecosystem, single-handedly decomposing 40% to 100% of the decaying wood and thereby enriching the soil. Subterranean termites, which are among the ones that bother us, humans, serve us well too. As they tunnel through the soil, building swarming tubes to forage for food, they increase the soil’s porosity, facilitating greater percolation of water. Termites are known to dig as deep as over 100 feet in search of water to maintain the humidity of their mounds.
Soils develop layers as organic matter accumulates and leaching takes place. This development of layers is the beginning of the soil profile. This humus-rich topsoil where nutrient, organic matter, and biological activity are highest (i.e. most plant roots, earthworms, insects, and micro-organisms are active. Termites feed on a carbo-rich diet of wood, soil, grass, litter and even animal dung. Concrete is no barrier either, a small crack is all they need to start occupying space. The greatest secret to their success is their choice of food: they exploit an exclusive and abundant food source, a biomolecule called lignocellulose, which no other creature, not even other insects, can eat. Since lignocellulose does not degrade easily, termites can access it from living plants and dead wood or soil too.
Every time the termite feeds or builds, it modifies the habitat for the benefit of other organisms including humans. This might explain why termite mounds, mistakenly called ant hills, are worshipped – the clay from termite mounds was used to build Vedic fire altars and included in the Rajasuya yajna performed by kings.
In Underbug Lisa Margonelli investigates the environmental and economic impact termites inflict on human societies in this fascinating examination of one of nature’s most misunderstood insects. She introduces us to the enigmatic creatures that collectively outweigh human beings ten to one and consume $40 billion worth of valuable stuff annually―and yet, in Margonelli’s telling, seem weirdly familiar. Over the course of a decade-long obsession with the little bugs, Margonelli pokes around termite mounds and high-tech research facilities, closely watching biologists, roboticists, and geneticists. What begins as a natural history of the termite becomes a personal exploration of the unnatural future we’re building, with darker observations on power, technology, historical trauma, and the limits of human cognition.
Whether in Namibia or Cambridge, Arizona or Australia, Margonelli turns up astounding facts and raises provocative questions. Is a termite an individual or a unit of a superorganism? Can we harness the termite’s properties to change the world? If we build termite-like swarming robots, will they inevitably destroy us? Is it possible to think without having a mind? Underbug burrows into these questions and many others―unearthing disquieting answers about the world’s most underrated insect and what it means to be human.