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| Home | Reading Room The New McGuffey Fourth Reader

The New McGuffey Fourth Reader
by William H. McGuffey, Compiler

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By Henry Diamond

The white ant is a small insect, the body being of a yellowish

white color, and repulsive in appearance. This tiny earth-dweller

lives almost entirely on wood. When a tree is cut down, white

ants immediately swarm toward the food thus unwittingly provided

for them by man.

You might reside in Africa for many years and never see one of

these ants, for they live underground; but their ravages confront

the explorer at almost every step. You build a house in Uganda.

For a short time you fancy that you have pitched upon the only

spot in the country where there are no white ants. But one day

the doorposts totter, and lintel and rafters come down with a

crash. You look at a section of any one of the wrecked timbers,

and find that the whole inside has been eaten away.

The apparently solid logs of the whole house are now all mere

cylinders of bark, and through the thickest of them you could

push your little finger. The household furniture--in fact

everything made of wood--has been attacked and utterly ruined.

Indeed, the ants will gnaw through most substances except

earthenware, glass, iron, and tin. So greatly are these tiny

creatures feared in certain parts of Africa that, in those

districts, wooden trunks are never carried by experienced travelers.

The white ant is never visible. Why it should not show itself is

strange--it is stone blind. But its modesty is really due to a

desire for self-protection; for the moment it shows itself above

ground it finds a dozen enemies waiting to devour it. Still, the

white ant can never procure food until it does come above the

surface of the soil.

Night is the great feeding time in the tropics, but it is clear

that darkness is no protection to the ant, and yet without coming

out of the ground it cannot live. The difficulty is solved thus:

It takes earth up with it. White ants may have reached the top of

a tree, and yet they were underground not long ago. They took up

soil with them, building it into tunnel-huts as they moved

upward; and in these huts they lived securely, feasting on the

wood of the tree, around which they had built solid walls of earth.

Millions of trees, in some districts, are plastered over with mud

tubes, galleries, and chambers. It is not unusual to find a tree

having thousands of pounds of earth packed around it. The earth

is conveyed by the insects up a central pipe, with which all the

various galleries communicate, and which, at the downward end,

connects with passages running deep into the ground.

The white ant's method of working is as follows: At the foot of a

tree the tiniest hole cautiously opens in the soil close to the

bark. A small head appears with a tiny grain of earth clasped in

its jaws. Against the tree trunk this grain is deposited and

the head is withdrawn. Again the little creature returns with

another grain, which is laid beside the first, tight against it,

and the builder once more disappears underground in search of

more of these unquarried building stones.

A third grain is not placed against the tree, but against the

former grains; a fourth, a fifth, and a sixth grain follow, and

the plan of a foundation begins to suggest itself. The grains are

formed into a semicircular wall, and the work is pushed forward

by many thousands of the little masons. As the wall grows higher

and higher, it takes the shape of a long perpendicular tunnel

running up the side of the tree--a marvel of architectural skill.

The way in which the building is done is extremely curious. Each

grain or stone, as it is brought to the top, is covered with

mortar. Without this precaution the wall would crumble into dust

before reaching half an inch in height; but the insect pours over

the earthen grains a sticky secretion, turning each grain round

and round until it has been overspread with the gluelike liquid.

Then the stone is placed with great care in the proper position,

and is worked about vigorously for a moment or two until it is well set.

To every hundred workers in a white-ant colony, which numbers

many thousands of individuals, there are, perhaps, two soldiers.

These are larger in build than the laborers, and never perform

any other work than sentry duty; yet they go about with a certain

air of business, as if one were the architect and the other the

superintendent of the structure being built.

They are stationed at the mouth of the tunnel. Sometimes

enemies--other species of ants--draw near, and then the working

white ants, being but poor, defenseless creatures, blind and

unarmed, would be in danger of death were not their big fighting

comrades on guard. The soldiers rush to the rescue and, with a

few sweeps of their scythe-like jaws, clear the field. While the

attacking party is carrying off its dead, the builders,

unconscious of the fray, quietly continue at their work.

It is not only a tree here and there that exhibits the work of

the white ant, but in many places the whole forest is so colored

with dull red columns as to give a distinct tone to the

landscape. The earth tubes crumble into dust in the summer, the

clay is scattered over the country by the wind, and in this

way tends to increase and refresh the soil.

Again, during the rains, this ant-raised earth is washed into the

rivulets and borne away to fertilize distant valleys, or is

carried to the ocean, where, along the coast line, it "sows the

dust of continents to be."



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