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Termites illustrate perfectly the dichotomous attitude of man to insects. Termites destroy millions of dollars worth of wood products, furniture and buildings. On the plus side, they hasten the decay of plant material that few other animals can use as food, and release nutrients for other organisms. Because of their shade-loving, secretive ways, few termites are seen unless one looks for them. But they are the most important insects in their effect on the human environment.

Another positive side of termites is as a food source for many Africans who regard them as a delicacy. During the rainy season, when the ground is soft enough for new nests to be started, an established colony produces millions upon milions of winged termites. These are fertile males and females, whereas the workers and soldiers that comprise the colony are infertile females. The winged forms, called 'alates' emerge on warm nights just after rainfall and flutter away on silken wings to an unknown fate. By far the vast majority end up in the mouths of the numerous predators who feast on the bounty—lizards, birds, small mammals and of course people relish the protein- and fat-laden insects. People catch them by lighting a small fire just outside one of the termite hill's exit holes (having carefully plugged all the others), and holding a small pan to collect the termites as they emerge. Few escape. The insects are fried, being tossed in the air so the wings, which detach readily, float away. The insects are eaten in situ or saved for sale at local markets. They're quite tasty, although the wings stick to the roof of your mouth, so it's worth the effort to remove them.

The most obvious and spectacular manifestation of these insects is the termite hills dotted all over the countryside. The species of termite can be determined from the architecture of its mound. Some are hillock-shaped, while others have a series of turrets containing airshafts or running straight up in a single hollow tower that looks like a miniature factory chimney. Deep in the center of the termite castle is the strongly cemented royal cell, in which the gigantic queen, tended by an army of guards and workers, spends her life laying eggs at a rate of about one every two seconds.

Termites are often called "white ants" or "flying ants" but although they share a complex social organization with the ants, termites evolved independently. (This is also the reason termite mounds are often called "ant mounds" or "ant heaps".) They are of very ancient lineage, closely related to the cockroaches, and may have been the first social insects.


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