The Wondrous Architecture of Their Nests
Termites are best known for their ability to build magnificent nests out of the ground more skillfully than a human being could. The skill of these tropical architects is undisputed in building cities that seem to appear out of nowhere. Their ease in finding building materials and technical skills are amazing. Every species of termite builds different kinds of nests suitable to their needs. These nests can be found inside trees, on or under the ground.
Nests that are shaped like mountains are architecturally very complex. The construction of all the nests begins underground, where compartments become more spacious as they approach the surface. A cross-section of a termite nest would show that the inside resembles a sponge composed of countless cells 2.5 cm (0.9 inches) in size, or smaller. These cells are joined by narrow passages only large enough for termites to pass through. Termites thrive in an atmosphere whose temperature and humidity are constant, with a carbon dioxide content of between 5 and 15%. In such an environment, human beings would lose consciousness, but termites survive easily.27
Specially Sheltered Nests
Termite nests are designed to isolate their inhabitants from the harsh, constantly changing external conditions in tropical regions. No matter what the conditions outside, the temperature and humidity remain stable inside the nest.
In order to provide insulation, termites cover their mountain-like nests with a compact layer of building material that functions like an outer shell of reinforced concrete and helps to regulate the nest’s interior climate in accordance with the requirements. For the eggs, it’s essential that the temperature inside the nest remain constant.28 Termites must be very careful to protect the queen’s eggs, and this roof serves to ensure that the temperature is right. The roof also protects the colony from intrusions by other creatures, since the outer walls are very hard and firm. The inner galleries are much softer, made of a material that almost has the consistency of cardboard.29
Somehow, termites know that the temperature of the nest must remain constant and how to make the best insulation to maintain it. In areas where intruders are always liable to attack, termites know the right materials to use. Besides this, they have the marvelous ability to measure the temperature inside their nest.30 When one sees the evidence of God’s creation in tiny creatures like these, one must remember not to praise or admire them, but only to praise and admire God Who created them with their talent. Only God is worthy to be praised:
He is the Living – there is no god but Him – so call on Him, making your religion sincerely His. Praise be to God, the Lord of all the worlds. (Surah Ghafir:65)
Noticing the wonderful construction in termite nests, scientists have done various experiments with them. In one, they divided in two a termite nest in the process of being built and prevented the two groups of termites from having any contact with each other. The result was not two different nests, but two halves of the same nest. When the two finished halves were put back together, all the tunnels that the termites had built connected with one another.31
There is no doubt that this was miraculous. Just imagine that you gave two groups of human workers each a pile of sand and commissioned each of the two groups to build half a sandcastle, without giving either of the groups instructions or supplying them with a plan. Would each be able to make an exact copy of the other half of the sandcastle? Of course not. Now in addition, imagine that these workers you’ve commissioned are blind. The enterprise would be even more impossible! These two groups couldn’t built identical halves of a sandcastle after thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of attempts. Where human beings with their intelligent awareness could not succeed, sightless termites can complete the construction of nests hundreds of times larger than themselves.
This fact cannot be avoided; termites do not behave by their own will, knowledge or expertise. They are clearly inspired. And it is Almighty God Who inspires them.
Features of the Termite Architects
The architects of termite colonies are the white, wingless workers. Though blind, they are very sensitive to light. They immediately notice any holes in the nest through which light can enter and are experts in stopping them up. They also show the same expertise in obtaining the materials needed to construct their nests.
First they make secretions and mix this fluid with grains of sand, earth and pieces of wood; then they use their mouths and legs to shape this material into small balls. Then they fix each of these balls into their proper places. Gradually these turn as hard as cement. 32 This material from which termites build their nests is so strong and resistant that humans beings often cannot break it with their hands. Some termite nests have to be destroyed by picks and shovels, even dynamite.
Blind Engineers and Architects
Considering the stages in human construction, or even the stages in learning how to do construction, illustrates the magnitude of the work done by termites.
To become an architect, a person must go through years of training. When he puts into practice what he has learned, he must first draw up blueprints for each construction. In making these plans, he must think long and hard and make complex calculations and sketches to determine the resilience of the proposed structure. Then, at each stage of construction, he must bring in other architects, construction engineers, mechanical engineers, skilled workers, experts in construction, and others who have undergone special training. But termites are tiny insects with no architectural training, and it is miraculous that they are even more expert at construction than human beings.
When we compare the architectural skill of termites with that of humans beings, keep one important point in mind.
Could a blind architect construct a building? Could a blind architect draw up plans for a building 300 times larger than himself, hand the plans to a blind foreman, and have him perform the construction using blind workmen? Of course, such would be impossible. No one would claim that people blind from birth could construct skyscrapers requiring complex mathematical calculations and technical knowledge. The construction of even the simplest building requires consideration of such details as pressure, resistance, foundation structure, ventilation systems and emergency exits. And those who handle these details are experts who are able to see.
To complete this comparison, let’s play with this possibility: If a team composed of blind workers, architects and engineers has completed a construction, what possibilities come to mind? Could anyone assert that the building came about by chance? Or would it be assumed that the blind workers involved, if not experienced, had received special training, and that someone had directed their work? First of all, blind workers could not build such a structure; but if they did, someone would have to have trained them, showed them how to manage each stage of the construction and supervised their every step. It would be illogical to think that blind persons could construct any towering building without close supervision.
In the same way, it is unthinkable that termite nests could come into existence by chance.
Termites construct skyscrapers up to 7 meters (22 feet) high. Comparing the size of a termite with the height of its nest, it’s no exaggeration to call it a skyscraper.
Comparing human buildings with termite constructions, we come up with some incredible figures. In order to get an idea of the proportions of the nests that termites make, we can compare them to the Empire State building in New York City.
The construction of that building started in 1930 and took 14 months to complete; it was the tallest building in the world until the World Trade Center was built in 1972. It was built by four expert construction companies and rose to a height of 443 meters (1,453 feet).
It occupies an area of 8,000 square meters (9,567 square yards, or 86,111 square feet) and 16 different plans were drawn up before construction started. The foundations were dug to a depth of 10.5 meters (34.4 feet), from which 28,500 truckloads of earth were removed.
After construction ended, 10 million bricks were used; 112,000 meters (367, 454 feet) of water pipes and 5,181,000 meters (5,181,000 feet) of telephone cable were installed. These are the materials that went into the construction of a skyscraper. 33 Now, let’s return to the termite’s nest.
Termites are only 1 to 2 cm (0.3 to 0.7 of an inch) long, but they make giant nests 7 meters (22 feet) high. If compared to buildings made by human beings, their nests would be twice the present height of the Empire State building. The magnificence of the termite’s work is obvious. But when we examine the details of a nest’s construction, we see more clearly the perfection of its structure.
Termites live for years under the ground and, as the colony reaches a certain population, the nests expand towards the surface. Normally, between 1 and 2 million termites live in a single nest, working and breathing together. They have a great need for oxygen; so, if the nests were not ventilated and the humidity level stable, they could not survive. Therefore, they must construct their nest to supply these needs.
The Stages in Construction of a Termite Nest
Termites live comfortably in earthen structures without windows or openings for air to pass through. So, let’s examine the amazing stages of the construction of a termite nest.
Immediately after heavy rains especially, small mounds of soil will suddenly appear in areas where there had been no termite mounds before. A nest starts as a small mound, but can rise to a height of 5 to 6 meters (15 to 19 feet) in the course of months or even years.
Random piles of earth are brought into the nest and used to expand it. These piles of earth become the central columns that will support the nest. When these piles reach a certain height, construction stops. When these earth columns are brought sufficiently close together, they are bound together at the top by a circular band.
As the mound rises in the process of construction, convection air currents rising through the channels serve as invisible construction piers and workers weave strong walls around these currents. 34
Because of this, the nest is more than just a pile of earth; it becomes a complex structure through the careful step-by-step application of technology. Finally, a wonderful example of free architecture emerges with a ventilation system, controlled humidity, and a connected series of tunnels and passages. Construction is perfect at every stage, without the slightest error. While construction continues, the other members of the colony live comfortably. At every stage, ventilation channels, tunnels and passages are put accurately in place. At no stage are any errors made that would put the colony in jeopardy.
These mounds are built to be hard and strong; when they are joined and the dome is complete, the mounds serve as scaffolding. Those in the middle, apart from their top sections, are then eliminated. (Once joined, these will form the top of the dome.) Clay is used for the inner construction, or to construct the mound more quickly.
The outer structure or the dome is important not only to protect the inner structure of the nest from rain or external damage; it’s also important to stabilize and maintain the temperature and humidity levels—crucial for the hatching of eggs and care of the young. 35
How is it, then, that these blind creatures can construct these architectural masterpieces? How can the nest’s order be technically maintained even when it is under construction? How can the humidity be regulated at every stage, and how are the construction activities monitored and directed?
In order for such a well-organized system to exist, certainly there must be a “will” directing the termites, inspiring them to do their work and giving them directions. Of course, this will does not belong to the termites; it belongs to God. He is the Almighty Lord of all; He Who directs every living creature, inspiring in them the work they must do.
Everyone must think twice when he sees God’s intelligence manifested in these tiny creatures. We must recall the basic purpose of life and try to direct our lives according to the will of the Lord of all.
The Qur’an tells us that believers consider the creatures that God has created and learn from them. In this book, we hope to show the wondrous talents of just one of the millions of species that God has created, to remind you that there is no power apart from God and to invite you once again to turn to Him. God says in the Qur’an:
The kingdom of the heavens and Earth belongs to God. God has power over all things. In the creation of the heavens and the Earth, and the alternation of night and day, there are Signs for people with intelligence: those who remember God, standing, sitting and lying on their sides, and reflect on the creation of the heavens and the Earth: “Our Lord, You have not created this for nothing. Glory be to You! So safeguard us from the punishment of the Fire.” (Surah Al Imran:189-191)
Termites’ Nest-Repair Techniques
When we first glance at a termite’s nest, it may appear to have been constructed without a plan, as if heaps of earth have been piled up randomly. But this impression does not last long; soon it becomes clear that these apparently random piles of earth form a nest with a very complex order.
Even if all termite nests resemble one another in their general features, they have an infinite variety and delicacy of design. At each given stage, you cannot imagine the complexity that you will encounter at the next one.
One characteristic of worker termites is that they quickly fit or adapt any variation in the construction plan into the overall structure.
In one experiment, a small hole was made in the roof of a Nasute termite nest. How would the termites repair it? After a pause of several minutes, one soldier cautiously emerged from the tunnel, inspected the extent of the damage with great care, and withdrew. Soon several soldiers appeared and took up positions at the top and bottom end of the opening. Only their pointed noses and their wavering antennae were visible. More soldiers lined up along both sides of the damaged section.
Next, a group of workers appeared and began to repair the damage, starting at both ends. Only now and then did the tip of an abdomen become visible between two soldiers, as a worker deposited a large drop of excrement on the edge of the broken tunnel, and soon after a head pressed a small soil particle into the excrement. Systematically, brick by building brick, the damage was repaired in only a few hours. 36
Termites’ talents are not limited to repair work. These insects also have the technology to make paper that they use in the construction of their nests. They use paper pulp made of masticated wood mixed with saliva or excrement, not only for the outer walls of their dwellings, but also for the construction of their living, breeding, and storage chambers—including a royal cell as the centerpiece.37
Utility Rooms in the Nest
Examining the various sections of a termite nest, we see the queen’s chamber and around it, a row of small rooms in which the larvae are nursed. Beside these are storage rooms where little pieces of leaves are stored.
The chamber in which the queen and the king live is between 15 and 17 cm (6 to 7 inches) in length. This room is the center of the nest, with several openings in the walls of the nest through which worker and soldier termites can come and go. But these openings are too small to admit the larger queen and the king. They spend their whole lives in this room, where all their needs are supplied. They are fed from mouth to mouth by the worker termites that can easily pass through the openings. The workers take the eggs laid by the queen, carry them to the nearest larva nursery and care for them there. The king is always at the queen’s side and fertilizes her eggs at the right time. One of the most interesting rooms in the nest is the agriculture room.
Agriculture in a Skyscraper
In these magnificent termite structures, some rooms are used for agriculture. Here extra leaves are stored, and a kind of agriculture is practiced.
During the night, termites collect leaves and seeds from the outside and store them in some of the countless underground passages they have constructed. But termites cannot stand light and dryness. For this reason, it is difficult for them to collect leaves and bits of plant material on the open ground. Termites build underground passages between 2 and 4 meters (6 to 13 feet) deep, by which they carry organic material into the nest.
This organic material, used in the place of soil, is composed of rotting leaves and pieces of wood; termites mix it with secretions and grow fungus in large specially designed rooms.
In order to ensure the productivity of their fungus gardens and for the health of the colony in general, temperature and humidity in the mounds must be kept constant. The growth of the fungus raises the temperature around it to a point that could ruin the temperature balance created in the nest; this elevation in temperature must be corrected at all costs. So termites install a ventilation system to manage the heat they produce by themselves and through the metabolism of the fungus in their gardens.
Termites’ Natural Air-Conditioning System
Nests are between 3 and 4 meters (9 and 13 feet) high and contain about two million termites. All of these two million termites eat, work and breathe in their nest, so of course, these individuals consume a lot of oxygen. Without ventilation they would all suffocate within twelve hours. How, then, does a termite colony survive living in a hard-covered nest with no windows?
Termites do not themselves act as ventilators as, for instance, bees do when they ventilate the hive by fanning with their wings. The ventilation system of the nest is completely automatic. Air in the fungus chambers is heated by the fermentation process taking place there. Like any tightly packed group of breathing animals, the termites themselves cause a rise in temperature. This continuous stream of hot air rises within the main tower by pressure and is forced into the ducts system of the ridges. The exterior and interior walls of these ridges are so porous that they enable an exchange of gasses to take place. Carbon dioxide escapes, and oxygen penetrates from outside. These ridges with their system of ducts might be called the lungs of the colony. The air is cooled during its passage through the ridges; this cooler, regenerated air now flows into the air hole resembling a cellar by way of the lower system of wide ducts. From there, it returns to the nest and replaces the rising warm air.38
This fresh air is rich in oxygen, rushing into the nest at the rate of 12 cm (4.72 inches) a minute and keeping the temperature at a stable 30C (86 F). 39
Because of this perfectly functioning system, the annual temperature in the nest varies by less than half a degree. It takes each day 1,500 liters of air to supply a medium-sized termite nest. If this oxygen was delivered by the entry of air directly into the nest, the temperature and humidity would be too high for the termites to survive.
For this reason, termites do not use that kind of simple ventilation; instead, they have put much more complex systems in place. As we see, in order for termites to carry out their choice, they would need at least a very good engineer, a good designer and many individuals with experience in many branches of knowledge. Consider that to install such an air conditioning system, termites would have to have expertise in meteorology, geology, art, and interior design, among other branches of knowledge.
It’s irrefutable that termites can never acquire by themselves or by chance much less by training, sciences that rely on intelligence, awareness and a broad education. But nevertheless, termites can apply very intelligent methods to find solutions—not only to ordinary problems but also to ones that arise unexpectedly.
Termites’ “Emergency Measures”
In every termite colony, techniques are adapted to the area under construction. In extraordinary situations, the termites work in harmony to develop new tactics. For example, when ventilation was seriously impeded, the termites managed within forty-eight hours to build new structures atop the mound that looked somewhat like small pointed hats and had exceptionally porous walls so that they functioned as a new ventilation system. 40 In this way, the system was repaired without any adverse effects being experienced in the colony.
To see how termites respond in emergency situations, take the examples of the species Macrotermes and Odontotermes, which ventilate their nests with a series of chimneys. These chimneys are open at the top and are connected with ventilation shafts reaching through the nest into the ground below, where they are closed at the end. Normally, these cavities are completely separated from the nest proper by thin walls which, presumably, are permeable to air. No termites enter them except during periods of construction or repair. The chimneys often collapse during heavy downpours. At such times, many termites quickly gather and start repairing. 41
Another Problem, Another Solution: Natural Humidifying
Apart from the ventilation, there is also the problem of water supply. Much water is needed for the nest because termite bodies have membrane-thin skin that needs a constantly humid atmosphere. The humidity level must be between 89 and 99%. Besides water for the consumption of the termites, water is also needed for making mortar for the construction of the nest. 42
Some desert termites dig 40 meters (131 feet) under the earth to find water which they allow to evaporate up into the nest.43 Some other species solve the problem by bringing moist clay into the nest.Besides this, how the nest mound is constructed also helps provide humidity. The thick, moisture- impermeable walls, covered with a layer of clay, prevent evaporation.
Without exception, every aspect of termite behavior is intelligent, planned and calculated, requiring judgment and decision making. But it is not logical to think that these are qualities inherent in termites. They cannot display intelligence, think or make decisions. What, then, is the source of this awareness among them?
It is God, the Creator of everything animate and inanimate in the universe, Who has inspired in termites how to plan intelligently and how to react in suddenly changing situations.
Everyone in heaven and Earth prostrates to God willingly or unwillingly, as do their shadows in the morning and the evening. Say: “Who is the Lord of the heavens and the Earth?” Say: “God.” Say: “So why have you taken protectors apart from Him who possess no power to help or harm themselves?” Say: “Are the blind and seeing equal? Or are darkness and light the same? Or have they assigned partners to God who create as He creates, so that all creating seems the same to them?” Say: “God is the Creator of everything. He is the One, the All-Conquering.” (Surat ar-Ra‘d:15-16)
Different Nests for Different Species
The outer appearance of termites’ nests varies according to the climate where they are located. For example, some species in tropical rainforests put on roofs with overhanging eaves which make their tall mounds, look like pagodas and which serve to keep off the torrential rains. This shape of nest resembling mushrooms is peculiar to tropical termites, and termites living in arid zones do not use this technique to build their nests. 44
No African termites build nests with such large roofed mounds. Some of them do build graceful nests in the trunks of trees and then cover them with a dome to protect them in heavy rainfalls.
Underground nests can be quite complicated in structure. For example the species Apicotermes gurgulifex that lives in the Congo builds a nest resembling a giant pinecone 50 cm (19.5 inches) under ground. In the interior of the nest are flat chambers joined by a central spiral path. The inside has a complicated structure made up of multistoried galleries separated by 1 mm thick walls. The nest is protected against intruders by infertile, adult soldiers with large heads and jaws.
Many narrow channels enter the galleries from outside. These channels are too narrow for termites to pass through; like the chimney of the Macrotermes, these channels function as a gas-exchange system. They also form a thin roof to prevent rain from entering the nest. When entering or leaving their nest, the termites use a tunnel in the mound.
The arid outback of northern Australia where the sun shines every day is home to the “compass termite” (Omitermes meridionalis). It builds its 5 meter (16,40-foot) high termitaria with one long axis always running North/South and the one short axis East/West. 45 This architectural detail is extremely important. Looking at the general lay of the land, you can see more clearly why these termites would built such a nest. In the outback, trees are rare; this means there is no shade from the sun. If these termites’ nests were not built in this special way, they would be exposed to all the sun’s rays, and it would be difficult for the termites to endure the light and heat. But the special orientation of their nests solves this problem.
The result is that the termitaria has a large surface area facing the sun in the morning and afternoon, but only a very small surface area receiving sun in the middle of the day, thus helping produce a steady temperature for the longest possible time.46
Anyone who has lost his way in the outback can easily find due north by looking at the orientation of these termite nests. Of course, this raises the question of how blind termites with no compass or other direction- finding device can accomplish this. How can these tiny creatures with no capacity for thought or judgment make such calculations?
Blind termites have the ability to make architectural plans, calculate the movement of the sun in relation to their nest and construct it accordingly and make the desired use of the structure. All these activities require awareness and point to the existence of a Being with intelligence and the power of judgment. Termites can do things that even human beings cannot: They can find their directions without any assistance. When we examine where this intelligence comes from, it becomes clear that this intelligence does not belong to termites and that it did not come to be through blind chance.
Like all creatures in the world, God created termites too. He provided such examples as lessons for human beings and to make us think. Every intelligent person must listen to the voice of his conscience and turn to God as the source of all beauty. God is forgiving, and His justice is infinite.
Your Lord knows best what is in your selves. If you are righteous, He is Ever-Forgiving to the remorseful. (Surat al-Isra’: 25)