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Updated: June 13, 2014 19:52 IST
melange: inside view

Termite alert

KHYRUNNISA A.
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Illustration: Sreejith R. Kumar
The Hindu
Illustration: Sreejith R. Kumar

The biting truth about termites

Irony is when you write a short story about termites only to discover that the malicious creatures have devoured the very pages of the magazine in which it had appeared. It was almost as if they had read the story and decided to finish it off by chewing and digesting it. They hadn't left a word behind. A good meal for them and heart break for me, for that was the only copy I had. I discovered this last week when I lifted an old toffee tin one morning only to find it come away in my hand with a good chunk of what remained of the shelf’s wood stuck to its bottom. Along with some tell tale white ants. Termite alert!!

This is literally an occupational hazard, an incident waiting to happen when you occupy an old house. I am attached to my home, but so, it appears, are the termites. I frantically turned out the contents of the cupboard that included a heap of precious magazines and found to my horror that the termites had already destroyed the oldest issues at the bottom of the pile and were steadily working their way up. Some adventurous ones had begun to get their teeth gleefully into other books too when I applied the brakes on their greedy feasting.

I needed consolation. My husband was away, so I told my friend that termites had got into my books. ‘Move,’ she said. Move? The books or the termites? I asked. ‘You,’ she replied. ‘I mean, time for you to move house. Do you know,’ she continued dreamily, ‘I've always considered termites the most effective method for landlords to evict tenants who dig their feet in and refuse to budge? But of course the method needs the active cooperation of armies of termites.’

What nonsense! I was quite indignant. Here I was hoping for sympathy and some practical advice and she rambles on about using termites to get rid of troublesome tenants. Disheartened, I went back to clearing the remains of the siege.

The only good, if you can call it that, was the termites had also destroyed a lot of supposed junk I had been disinclined to get rid of leaving me with no choice but Hobson’s of burning the remnants. What temporary method of damage control could I adopt? I thought hard and cleverly decided to buy naphthalene balls. If they can repel ants, I thought they could extend the courtesy to white ants too. I bought a dozen packets of them and strew the naphthalene balls here, there and everywhere.

A late brainwave prompted me go to the internet for information. “Termite colonies are decentralised, spaghetti-like things that can range from 10,000 insects to half a million...” – wow, what impressive numbers! “...and could have reached over from your neighbour’s yard a half-acre away.” Oops, that’s taking the ‘love thy neighbour’ commandment too far.

Do not panic if there is termite activity, advised a wise guy. Too late, I told my computer screen; that was the first thing I did. But the panic stage is now over. No one is immune to termite attacks, I was told next. Even the White House and the Statue of Liberty have had to deal with termites. Well, that’s some consolation. I'm glad the little fellas are so egalitarian but I still can’t love them.

Try beneficial nematodes, was the next suggestion. Beneficial what? I skipped that and went to the next. Expose your wood to sunlight. Thank you very much, but it’s raining heavily. ‘If you are in a rainy area...’ Aha, now you’re talking sense. ‘...freeze the termites.’ What?? Place my furniture in a freezer? Think I'm living in a doll’s house? You must be crazy. Use boric acid. At last, a sensible and intelligible suggestion. I decided to get it after my husband returned. Anyway I had already used naphthalene balls as a short term precautionary measure.

That reminded me to check the net for confirmation of my ‘commonsensical’ decision. And what did I find? The startling information that termites actually produce naphthalene and use it to defend themselves from their natural enemies like ants, fungi and nematode worms. Yes, remember the beneficial nematodes? Well, apparently they are worms that can kill termites. I was glad to add to my general knowledge but dumbfounded to discover I had actually been helping the termites by supplying them with naphthalene! Irony again. I've still not recovered all the naphthalene balls I had generously flung around.

khyrubutter@yahoo.com

(A fortnightly column by the city-based writer, academic and author of the Butterfingers series)

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