Eating is an agricultural act - Wendell Berry

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

nature's own farmers - termites

the word termites evokes creepy feelings to most city dwellers. during our recent visit to our parents place in chennai, we were busy cleaning clothes and furnitures that were attacked by termites (yeah its an old house) and spraying all kings of things toxic to ward them off from our house.

at pR, termites and earthworms and millions of other life forms are the original residents. we have moved in with them.

termites have taken fancy to our bathroom walls and are forever building and rebuilding on them. come rainy season we see millions of them working away bringing in mud and building mounds all over the place. it looks like the mud inside the walls are bubbling up. we have often wondered what they find in these walls as there is no wood work on the walls. apparently they come for any dead plant material, wood, leaf litter, dung or just soil. there must be plenty for them in the cob walls that does not meet our eye.

this rainy season we saw something new. suddenly one day the mounds had white spots on them. as though someone had sprinkled rice flour on them. in the couple of days they grew bigger and became mushrooms. so sweet smelling that i gave into the temptation and tasted a few. they were divine!

as it turns out, this species of mushrooms belong to a group of fungi commonly called Termite Mushrooms (Termitomyces). they are cultivated by termites inside their nests or mounds in underground fungus gardens! these mushrooms aids in the breakdown of cellulose and lignin into a more nutritious compost which serves as the termites actual food! however termites grow and harvest the fungus in its minute mycelium stage without letting it develop into the umbrella-shaped fruiting bodies that we call mushrooms. these mushrooms are normally not visible as they are inside the mounds unless the termites for some reasons could not control their growth (when it rains too much) when the mycelia will literally grow through the roof of their nest and burst onto the surface of the ground as mushrooms! amazing! and yes it was very wet couple of weeks ago when the NE monsoon was in full fury. apparently the are edible. they are dying out now and the termites will probably eat them.