A touch of light: termite alates


Termite alates © Mike Gillam


The subtropical monsoon arrives pumping moisture into the arid interior and we look northwards, our optimism encouraged by the gathering cumulus. The BOM satellite images confirm our suspicion that Tennant Creek and the Tanami Desert are getting a drenching. Humidity soars.

We curse, sweat in torrents and renew our vows never to take that job in tropical Darwin. We’re a touch envious but happy for Tennant 500 kilometres to the north because they’ve endured such a long run of very high temperatures, an uncomfortable glimpse of our own future perhaps.

The rain sweeps through Ti Tree and south-east across the Plenty into the northern Simpson Desert and inland Queensland. It’s not close enough to smell but the temperature drops a couple of degrees and we dare to hope. On this occasion we get strong winds, no rain and no tantalising petrichor, but we do get flies in biblical proportions, pesky, sticky and thirsty from the pastoral country to the north.

Centralians pride themselves in being fairly stoic when it comes to flies but hell, we expect the bad to be wrapped up with the core benefits of actual rain. Humidity and hordes of flies are a testing combination. Reason and logic are an early casualty in the town’s mood. After a week of punishment even the atheists are feeling distinctly ripped off by the weather gods. There’s a run on fly veils.

Eventually, with lightning and the ritual fanfare of galahs hanging from the power lines, it does come and we all rejoice. Winged termites on their nuptial journey appear at the kitchen window and I go outside to see if I can locate any nests. On a red-gum trunk small lizards are excitedly snapping up termites that land on the flaking bark. The feasting skinks are not alone and must remain vigilant for predators such as kingfishers attracted by this sudden bounty.

I discover an outpouring of winged alates, venting from the ground with the translucence of smoke. The energetic puffs of smoke quickly subside and I focus my attention on the throng around the lights.

They look very much like Coptotermes, a large and formidable species, productive or destructive, depending on your point of view. Thankfully there’s no termites pouring from our timber framed World War Two shed and we’re hugely relieved.

Now the alates seem hopelessly distracted, trapped in the thrall of the brightest car-park lights as microbats and occasional nightjars swoop through to pick them off.

I think of global warming and suppress a shudder. Occurring north of the tropic of Capricorn, the most destructive termite in the country, Mastotermes darwiniensis, is knocking on our front door. 

Just as tropical marine fish are extending southwards down the east coast, is the great destroyer of organic materials also moving southwards? I consider the vulnerability of much of the town’s built environment and then I think of the trees!

A quick search on the internet reveals that several genera of local trees are resistant. So we’ll be planting even more Callitris (native pine), Melaleuca spp. (ti tree) and Brachychiton gregoryi (desert kurrajong) in the future. 


A touch of light: totemic caterpillars

A touch of light: shield shrimps


  1. Another brilliant piece Mike. Keep these raptures rolling! They draw us closer to the world at large.

  2. Love these pieces Mike. Keep ’em coming! By the way, of the three trees mentioned which in your opinion would be suitable street trees for providing shade in the town centre?

  3. I have never understood why the active ingredient in native pine has not been isolated and used to protect our timber houses.
    Much better than CCA treatment from all points of view and why CCA vineyard training fences are now strictly controlled.
    Most people don’t take the trouble to find out what the “A” in CCA stands for arsenic. This is of course, also why the original telegraph line used native pine poles.
    What is it in native pine that repels termites? No one ever bothered to ask and this could have been a significant project economically for this town where termites are a real problem.
    The significance of this has never been seen by the science or political community.
    One would have thought that in the common good of he community the task of using this common observation to our advantage would have been instantly assigned to DKA or CSIRO to investigate and applied for the common good.
    This is just another example of political thought, common sense observation, scientific training, and political ignorance are often mutually exclusive, and why I built my deck with Cyprus pine.

  4. Thank you Mike as usual your words prompt much thought. Your images are often really beautiful. The image of “alates” looked almost angelical, but I did not know what “alates” really where. So I googled the word. To my surprise this is what I found!
    “Termite alates are winged reproductives that comprise either males or females whose sole purpose is to start new colonies and become the future king and queen of their new colony.”
    Now they do no look quite so angelic especially if they are around my house.


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