Termites may be relatively boring insects, but people have marveled over the size and intricacy of termite mounds for thousands of years. In the west, most people consider termites to be insect pests that can inflict expensive damages to buildings and houses. While this attitude may not be unfair, people living in Africa view termites a bit differently. Africa contains the greatest abundance of termite species, and it is somewhat commendable to see how African people have made use of termites over the centuries. Not only are termites valued for their nutritional quality in Africa, but the awe-inspiring beauty of tall and equally spaced termite mounds within spacious African fields cannot be denied by any visiting westerner. In fact, termite mounds are considered one of the most fascinating features of African safaris. In addition to being tall and castle-like in appearance, termite mounds are made of uniquely fertile forms of soil that allow for the growth of edible mushrooms and many different forms of vegetation. Considering that termite mounds provide the only forms of edible vegetation and fungi within otherwise excessively barren and dry deserts, it is no wonder why so many African people have, and still do, consider termite mounds to be an example of “ecological magic.”
Not all termite species build mounds. Only the termite sub-family known as Macrotermitinae can create mounds. These termites gather various forms of plant matter for sustenance, and this plant matter is stored within specific chambers contained within their mounds. In order to make this plant matter easier to digest, termites wait for fungi to grow over their stored piles of collected plant matter. This fungi grows significantly after bouts of rain. It does not take long for the fungi to grow through the tops of termite mounds, making them clearly visible. This type of fungus is known as the Termitomyces mushroom, and this mushroom has been consumed by African natives for centuries. The food-providing capacities of termite mounds have long been considered a form of magic by female shamans. The African religious cults of Santeri, Renuka and Yellamma worship an earth goddess known as Roen or Santeri. This earth goddess is illustrated on religious emblems as a five-hooded serpent emerging from a womb. These religious cults call this emblem “Nagakashtha.” Many religious scholars believe that the Nagakashta originated from the image of immature mushrooms protruding from the tops of termite mounds. This is one of many reasons why termite mounds serve as symbols of female fertility in African cultures.
Do you think that the American attitude toward termites would be more positive if mound-building termites existed in the United States?