The Soul of the White Ant

By Eugène N. Marais

15. The Queen in Her Cell

IT was not until long after I had published most of my observations that I for the first time had an opportunity of investigating at my leisure the most important phenomenon in the psychological life of the termite. By this I mean the behaviour of the queen, as a living and active part of the community. I had attempted hundreds of times on the veld to expose the palace cavity in such a manner that the functions of the queen and what occurs in her immediate vicinity would be visible to me. I am referring of course to what happens in a full-grown termitary. I had had the opportunity of watching development of a nest, but my observations were of necessity curtailed, and gave no inkling of what happens later when the queen is sealed in her cell and continues life as the brain of the community.

An opportunity came my way quite unexpectedly in Pretoria. There was a house in Arloius Lane, which had been infested with termites for years. They were continually causing.great destruction and a number of attempts had been in vain to rid the house of them. The queen had never found and immediately the damage to the house had been repaired the termites began their work of destruction anew. At last the Town Council undertook the work of exterminating them. Mr Victor Foster and I followed with great interest the labours of the workmen while they were trying to track down the queen. After the searchers had tried in vain for many days to find the palace cavity I made a proposal to the foreman. I was convinced that in this case there was only one queen and that the community was not one, which was influenced by two or more queens, where the subjects would swear allegiance to another queen if their own were destroyed. I suggested. that I would point out the palace cavity on condition that I might observe the living queen for two or three days. To this proposal the foreman agreed. Within a few minutes I had established three main passages and their point of intersection, and was then in a position to point out, with a fair degree of accuracy, the place where the queen's cell would be found. The palace cavity, luckily for us, was under a hearth in the darkest corner of one of the rooms. Mr Foster and I exposed this ourselves, with the help of an electric torch. We succeeded in cutting first the palace cavity and then the actual cell of the queen in half, without causing undue disturbance to the community. We simply carved away a portion of the skull and there before us lay the living, functioning brain of the organism. It was indeed a spectacle more wonderful than I had expected. How I regretted we had stipulated for only two or three days!

Termite damage in timber

Some of the phenomena which this exposure revealed to me I was acquainted with, and for these I watched. Others came as complete surprises, and revealed amazing secrets. This was what we saw. The queen was enormously big, and lay I with her body pointing east and west, her head towards the west. The king, who of course was only the usual size of the flying termite, was constantly either on her gigantic or in its immediate neighbourhood. There was nothing in his behaviour which could in any way establish his function, although I made detailed notes on his every movement. A large mass of the smaller class of worker was in constant movement on the queen and around her. Immediately in front of the head of the queen was a small opening which served as entrance and exit and which was, of course, far too small for the, queen to pass through. Through this small opening two streams of workers were constantly passing, one stream coming in and another going out. We very soon established the fact that these small workers were occupied with three different tasks:

  1. One stream was engaged in feeding the queen. Each worker stopped close to her head, and raised itself in order to reach her mouth. Immediately a tiny drop of clear fluid shining like a diamond appeared in its jaws, to disappear at once into the mouth of the queen. As soon as he had tendered his morsel to his sovereign, the worker walked round her gigantic body, so as to reach the exit on the opposite side from that by which he had entered. The work, therefore, went with the greatest speed and regularity, without any worker ever impeding another unnecessarily.

  2. With these workers and in the same streams were some who had the task of carrying away the eggs and caring for them. These workers, too, walked right round the queen, to appear later carrying eggs in the outgoing stream. Mr Foster calculated that the queen laid fifty thousand eggs in twenty-four hours, which gives some idea of the speed with which the task of conveying them had to be accomplished.

  3. A much smaller group of workers were occupied with a far more mysterious task. I could not find out exactly what they were doing but assumed they were busy cleaning the skin of the queen in some way. They were constantly engrossed, either singly or in groups, in some task on the queen's gigantic body. They appeared to be stroking her skin softly with their jaws in a continuous movement. We did discover that when they entered the cell their bodies were empty, whereas when they left they were filled with a colourless fluid. This fluid must therefore have been obtained in some way through the skin of the queen without in any way damaging it. We called these workers masseurs. It may be that they were appointed to some special work of feeding the young ones and that the queen secreted in her enormous body the fluid used for this purpose. I base this assumption on what we actually saw happening when we followed up some of these masseurs after they had left the queen's cell. This observation, however, I still had some doubt about, for we experienced some difficulty in following up these workers. It appeared, however, that the masseurs after they left the cell visited one of the big breeding gardens, where there were a large number of the small white babies. Here they fed the babies with drops of colourless fluid, in exactly the same way that other workers of this class fed the queen. It occurred to me therefore that the body of the queen served as an organ for digesting food a stage further for use of part of the community. In her body a change occurs which renders the nutriment fit for infant feeding. If this is actually the case, it is the first appearance in nature of 'milk' secretion by the mother. Besides these three classes of workers and their never-ending activity, we observed an even more interesting phenomenon in the palace cavity. The cell of the queen was encircled by a ring of the bigger soldiers. These soldiers were equidistant from each other. The plane of the circle was placed at an angle of approximately 45 degrees to water-level. In the foreground of the palace cavity the soldiers were standing on the floor, while at the opposite side they were hanging upside down from the roof. All their heads were turned directly to the magnetic north. I think this fact is of importance, because I am convinced that the magnetism of the earth has a noticeable effect on most kinds of termite, as has already been indicated in connection with the water-shaft in Africa and in the shape of the termitaries of the magnetic ant of Australia. The members of this bodyguard, as we may call it, were, for most of the time, entirely motionless. Every now and then, however, one of them became activated with a curious motion, a swaying to and fro of the head and foremost part of the body, which reminded me of the well-known termite dance described by observers. As soon as one member began these movements he infected within a few seconds the soldier nearest him on his right side, who in his turn handed it on to the one next to him and so on from one to another, until the peculiar dance had been transmitted right round the circle, to end where it had begun.

We also saw the changing of the guards. The new guards entered the palace cavity by a large opening nearly opposite the head end of the cell, and formed a second circle within the circle of the guards about to be relieved. The new guards gradually widened their circle to take their places between the old guards. This was the signal for the latter to leave the cell in single file by the same opening. This was the only activity we observed on the part of these soldiers.

What could be the function of this mysterious circle? Another observer, who later had the opportunity of seeing them in German West Africa, describes them with the utmost assurance as real bodyguards which fulfil the same function as royal bodyguards do in the case of a human sovereign. I am afraid I cannot accept this theory. Any enemy which had succeeded in penetrating the nest thus far, would surely be capable of overcoming this single line very easily. One must remember that such an enemy would have come through miles of passages where he would meet countless soldiers of the same class, who would, à outrance, withstand every inch of his approach with every means of attack and defence. If he had succeeded in forcing his way thus far, no mere circle of bodyguards would be the slightest use. I may add that I never succeeded in stirring up this bodyguard to attack. I could touch them with my finger and move them from side to side, without any of them making the least attempt to bite, which any other soldier of the same class would have done immediately in any other part of the nest. They appeared to me to be semi-conscious like chloroformed termites.

I immediately formulated another theory. The termitary is such a perfect analogy to the physical body of an animal with its brain, its stomach and liver, its blood-stream consisting of two kinds of corpuscles, that I am inclined to clarify any unknown phenomenon in the termite by comparison with higher animals. It had always appeared to me that there was one analogous organ lacking in the termitary. I had always felt that there should be some system with a similar function linking up the community and its brain, the queen, as is found in the central nervous system of animals. I had always been searching for something which would be the functional equivalent of the medulla oblongata and the vertebral column; which would act as a link to carry the mysterious influence of the queen to all parts of the community. I must admit that this is a theory which is supported by very few observations. I am giving it here for what it may be worth. Perhaps future observers will have the opportunity of investigating this mysterious circle more thoroughly and establishing its functions. Of one thing we may be certain, that such a complicated and regular phenomenon must have some definite purpose.

I must describe another occurrence which took place during our observation because it bears upon the theory of the organic unity of the termitary.

While we were watching the queen, a fairly large piece of hard clay became detached from the edge of the roof of the cell and fell down, dealing the queen a somewhat hard blow. Immediately a series of extraordinary occurrences took place. The only effect which the shock had on the queen herself was that she began moving her head to and fro in a rhythmic fashion. The workers immediately ceased all work within the cell and wandered round in aimless groups. The circle of bodyguards broke up at once and most of them vanished down the passages behind the palace cavity. Then we saw masses of tiny workers thronging into the palace cavity and cell. They swarmed over the queen in order to suck the fluid through her skin, in exactly the same way as the masseurs had done in normal circumstances. The king greedily took part in this draining of his mate. They succeeded so well that within a few minutes , the skin of the queen was hanging in loose folds.

In the meantime we visited far outlying parts of the nest, where the termites had been very active just before the accident. Even in the farthest parts all work had ceased. The large soldiers and workers gathered in great excitement in different parts of the nest. There appeared to be a tendency to collect in groups. There was not the least doubt the shock to the queen was felt in the outermost parts of the termitary within a few minutes. Recovery began in the same place where the first and greatest disturbance took place. Slowly the destructive workers stopped their assault on the queen. The bodyguards took up their positions in a circle and the queen ceased the rhythmic movements of her head. She appeared to be recovering from the shock. So quickly that it was barely possible for me to follow all the stages, normal activity began anew. The only difference in conduct which I could notice was that the workers appeared to be speeding up the feeding of the queen, and before long her body had resumed its usual gigantic size. The following day all activity in the outermost parts of the termitary was in full swing.

And that was the end of our observations.

The workmen had occupied themselves with excavating and removing the breeding gardens in other rooms, but now the time allotted to us had come to an end. The queen was removed from her half-cell and taken away captive; and after that the activities and life of this nest ceased for good.

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