Outside magazine, March 1997


In which we embark on a desperate quest to track down the wilderness lair of the invisible destroyer of woods, the digester of homes, the ravenous members of the teeming order of disorder
By Mark Levine

A dreary Saturday morning in the late-winter woods of western Montana, and my ailing Honda lies stranded in a culvert off a dirt road, and one of my hiking boots is fastened with a safety pin, and a teenage boy dressed like a haunted guerrilla has just lunged across my path clinging to an outsize crossbow, and I’m trampling through the season’s last few inches of brittle snow looking for the right kind of dead tree, the kind likely to have surrendered itself to the debilitating influence of termites. Termites–through whose semitranslucent surface one might glimpse the final passage of the world of sturdy appearances. Termites–the predators of domesticity, which with an utter lack of sentimentality transform our homesteads into digestive wealth. Termites–my ever-receding yet intimate prey. The author of Insect Enemies, a First World War-era tract that seeks to defend the home front against six-legged infiltrators, warns, “No asylum is so secure that they may not intrude; no condition of life is exempt from their presence.” An entomologist tells me, “We live in their food.”

I’m looking for termites, and the adventure is beginning to make me feel like an insufficiently domestic creature–like a parody of my demographic niche: no mortgage, neither spouse nor offspring, no assets, no permanent address, no steady record of employment. No termites. A former girlfriend of mine grew up in New Orleans, where an influx of voracious Formosan termites–imported from Asia, it’s thought, aboard our Pacific fleet after the Second World War–has gained notoriety for gutting enormous live oaks along St. Charles Avenue. “They look perfectly healthy,” a city official has said of the trees. “But they’re hollow on the inside.” My old girlfriend has gone and married and won’t return my calls. She probably has termites of her own by now.

One termite expert at a research station in the savagely chewed Southeast says to me, “You probably never see termites where you are,” and I think I detect a hint of resentment in his voice. What, after all, would I know of the fierce, destabilizing powers of the blind termite hordes? I find ants, beetles, moths, even the occasional unidentifiable wormy thing in the damp and dusty outposts of my rental house; not long ago a steady stream of wasps could be seen staggering out from a closet wall; a section of kitchen floor sags with rot. But no termites. And this despite their seeming ubiquity: the inaudible gnawing that causes more than $2 billion in property damage annually in America, affecting virtually all regions–Florida, yes, but California, too; the urban cellars of Manhattan no less than the barns of Missouri; Texas as well as Oregon; the coastal Carolinas and the desert Southwest. In these unfortunate climes, termites are the dark partner of domestic bliss, the distant crumbling in the beams and floorboards, the underneath, the invisible, the surreptitious. The word termite comes from Termes, the name for the typical genus of the family Termitidae, which derives from a Greek word for “shipworm” and a Latin word meaning “to rub.” Sifting through the waste-pile of their imperial tinder, the Romans may have also been thinking of terminus, “the end,” and of the narrowing implications of termite encroachment. (How else to explain the etymological proximity inherent in the long and tortured partnership between termites and their outmatched exterminators?) Termites give us a shudder of apprehension that the end is near, that the end may already have begun, that our term is up, we’re approaching the terminus, we’re soon to be terminated, our condition is and has always been terminal. “These insects,” writes L. O. Howard, author of The Insect Menace (1933), “have been found in graveyards, eating the pine boxes and coffins of the dead, and extensive damage to skulls and bones generally by termites has been noted in graves in Egypt and Nubia.” Adds the alarmist scribe of Insect Enemies, “Air, earth and water teem with them; there may be claimed for them almost an omnipresence.”

Not in my neighborhood. A college roommate phones me one dawn from his new home in Corpus Christi, Texas, where he has just stepped through the termite-ridden wafer that was his cedar patio deck. After urging me to forever forswear the terror and misery of home ownership, he asks for my help. I promise to do what I can. An entomologist at the National Pest Control Association faxes me a shaded and crosshatched military-style map from the front lines of the war against termites, and it confirms that my old friend lives in the hot zone. I, on the other hand, reside in a termite-neutral zone, a sort of Switzerland of pestilence, too far north and too far inland to be hospitable to termites, hugging the eastern frontier of a “slight to moderate” zone of infestation. (Montana, Wyoming, the Dakotas, and Maine are the last best places to flee the depredations of termites, but few sites can be considered truly secure. Termites creep up into the panhandle of Alaska; they now ravage the placid and peace-loving town of my youth, Toronto.) I call my local exterminator, Dan “The Bug Man” Keyser, and he assures me, with a trace of weariness, that if he had to rely on termites to make a living in Montana, he’d be in sorry shape. I’m almost disappointed. I want to bear vicarious witness to the doomed future that termites are reputed to portend. I want to see termites and see what termites do and drop a termite in a jar with a toothpick and stay up all night watching. I want to believe in termites. “Give me the ocular proof,” says Othello. I make a few more calls, and finally one pest control operator, who seems to be chewing on wood himself as he speaks to me, guides me to a broad swath of the Helena National Forest, where he remembers tripping across termites in a dead lodgepole pine one time when he was out bird-watching.

So here I am in the coniferous northern woods with a screwdriver in my belt and a daypack rattling with magnifying glass, flashlight, field guide, empty mustard jar, and a couple of Mars bars. I’m intent on bringing home a termite trophy of my own, and I’m facing down heavy odds. Ever seen a termite? The irony–and some of the fascination–of American termites is that they are hard to find, so steeped are they in the mystique afforded by invisibility, so biologically aware of the protective value of inconspicuous consumption. Typically they live underground and burrow to their food source. Some species remain lodged in dead wood that they core from the inside. “Insidious fuckers,” mutters a beleaguered homeowner from the gravely infested Pacific Northwest. Or in the elegant terms of a Mohave termite legend, “His body is here on the earth, his shadow below. It is his night body, the underground shadow, that bites men.” Michael Kuzma, a termite inspector for Antimite in southern California, tells me of having seen “some homes with rafter tails that are painted, where the wood is completely gone. It’s like an eggshell–all that’s left is the paint.”

Clambering up the side of a shallow gulch, I can sense the lurking presence of termites. The woods are littered with dead trees, and among insects, termites are preeminent in returning trees to the soil. I kneel by a squishy fallen pine layered with a thick, neon-green mat of moss, and I set to work. My screwdriver flakes away the damp wood; it’s like digging through sponge cake. A few dazed beetles make their hasty retreat. A column of ants swerves south. I search out the log with my light and all but bury my head in the decayed remains of the tree. Termites have been here–of that I feel certain. The log is furrowed along its grain. I spot a vague dusting of pepperlike pellets that I convince myself must be termite droppings. But of termites themselves–pale, soft-bodied, a bit like thick-waisted ants–I have none.

Termite sign is less elusive elsewhere. In the African, American, and Australian tropics–home to perhaps three-fourths of the 2,000 species of Isoptera, the order of termites, the order of disorder–some termites erect as their nests audacious, extravagant mounds, looming sculptural landmarks in which the activity of millions of termites is organized with an efficiency unknown to urban planners. At times 20 feet high, extending 15 feet below ground, built from tons of soil, plastered with saliva, these colossi are far grander, in relative terms, than any product of human engineering fancy. Many come equipped with intricate galleries, with fungus gardens where the termites graze for food, with sealed chambers to ensure the protection of the leaders of the brood, and with ventilation ducts for climate control. Pinnacled mounds have transformed stretches of African savanna into scale models of Monument Valley. In some places, inactive mounds, having long outlived their builders, serve as human burial plots. May Berenbaum, an entomologist at the University of Illinois and the author of Bugs in the System, tells me of the “magnetic mounds” of the Australian species Amitermes meridionalis, which “align along certain cardinal compass directions.” No other insect designs homes so capacious, millions of times as massive as individual bugs.

On this day, however, in these numb woods, such dazzling sights are but castles in the air to me. Empty-handed, I retire from the hunt. I steer my car across a desolate mountain pass, thinking of family values and of the termite-ridden life my married, settled friends tell me I can’t possibly understand. Arriving in Helena, I stumble into a nightclub where a woman with swollen feet sings to me in Portuguese and afterward find a cozy, anonymous motel room on Last Chance Gulch. I’m reading Moby Dick by the pale glow of ESPN, and I drift into uneasy sleep, beset by images of a wooden sea and of a great throng of soiled white insects on the horizon, boring ever deeper into the splintered waves. The sawdust swells collapse around me, and soon I find myself sealed in a mason jar, adrift in a formaldehyde haze.

“We know,” the menaced L.O. Howard continues, “that in Washington, D.C., they have in- vaded the Capitol Building, and that they bored under the Senate Document Room and fed upon such precious papers as Jefferson’s Manual of the Constitution and the Rules of the House of Representatives.” What else do we know? Introduced to Europe by mishap or by treachery, Reticulitermes flavipes, the predominant subterranean termite of the American East, destroyed the Imperial Greenhouses at Schønbrunn, near Vienna. Libraries in Spain have been thinned by the historical presence of termites in the stacks. They’ve munched on Napoleonic warships, and taken up residence in shade trees lining the Champs ðlysïes. Entomologists report, with some skepticism, tales of vanishing prosthetic limbs.

I’m reading Moby Dick, and I drift into an uneasy sleep, beset by images of a wooden sea and a great throng of white insects on the horizon, boring ever deeper into the splintered waves.

Nowhere, though, is the weary consciousness more battered by termites than in the master bedrooms and eat-in kitchens of Colonial Linda Vista, the American subdivision. It’s magically apt that termites should be viewed as a scourge of the family dwelling; plunder, for termites, is the family trade. They’re the family that stays together and preys together. A termite could no more rebel against the sanctity of its clan than develop a sudden appetite for plastics; a rapid encounter with predation, starvation, or the unfriendly elements awaits any termite determined to strike out on its own. Even the springtime mating flight of randy reproductive termites–an annual ritual that will shortly lead to the discovery, by appalled homeowners, of piles of delicate, detached termite wings–ends in success for only a tiny fraction of the swarmers; the rest are food for birds and other insects. Like ants, bees, and wasps–and like the far less orderly creatures whose baseboards they digest–termites are hopelessly social beings. If, however, entomologists have encouraged us to regard ants as the plucky, team-spirited Boy Scouts of the insect hordes, termites continue to be scorned as pestilential Crips. “I haven’t heard of any advocates for termites,” says May Berenbaum. Ants want only your crumbs; mosquitoes want only your blood–termites want your mortgage.

The great evolutionary event for termites was the intuition that it takes a village to eat a tree; and so, about 200 million years ago, they distinguished themselves from their presumed ancestors the wood-boring cockroaches by banding together and dividing to conquer. Termites would not be squatting so stubbornly in your joists today had they not developed their smooth assembly-line technique long before other insects dreamed of collective labor, longer yet before Marx reviled capitalism for turning workers into insects. When is division of labor ever truly equitable? For a select, basically monogamous termite pair–the king and queen, of course, in the monarchist lingo beloved of entomology–a life of perpetual reproductive languor is reserved. Others are strictly assigned to the defense of the colony and grow brutally enlarged jaws, sharp enough to slice an ant cleanly in half; in some species, these soldiers are equipped with a long spout through which they spray an acrid paste at their tormentors. For the overwhelming majority of termites, though, socialization means confinement to drudgery: no sex, no fighting, no flying–hell, no eyes–nothing but the endless struggle for wood. These are the proletarians of the termite caste system, described by one bug scientist as “the blind, apterous, dirty white workers, which have a musty odor and travel in military formation.”

Still, at Linda Vista Elementary School, where all children learn that they might one day grow up to be president–if not king–the example of the termite might provide a useful model of equal opportunity. Termite caste is not genetically determined; all newborn termite nymphs have the potential to develop into workers, soldiers, or the sexed-out future royalty of a new colony. The social aspirations of termites, though, are kept in secure check by a vaguely understood system of population regulation. The termite colony, shrouded in a pheromone mist, sends signals to immature nymphs about the needs of the community. If, for instance, termite soldiers suffer heavy losses in a skirmish with carpenter ants, the hormonal banner is raised and a fresh batch of nymphs are conscripted into service as soldiers. Even if the queen were to perish, effectively sterilizing the colony, a maid-in-waiting would undergo a rapid and powerful pubescence. Termite colonies are easy to injure, difficult to kill. Cut out the ovaries, and they grow back.

For the most part, termites colonize our territory only after we have colonized theirs. Every developer who has promised home-buyers “wooded lots” has sunk his shovel into termite-heavy soil. Termites thrive because their food–the cellulose in wood, plants, leaves, and grasses–is among the most abundant on earth, everywhere available and everywhere undefended. Why should we expect termites to distinguish between a dead tree in the forest and the dead trees that we live in? Nutrition is nutrition for those with many mouths to feed. The almost mechanistic dedication with which termites attend to the survival basics of food, shelter, reproduction, and self-defense raises the curious prospect that termites understand the American family better than we understand ourselves. They get inside the skin of our houses because they do what we do, only with extreme and unwavering attention to their goals. They seem not to need literature, StairMasters, solitude, or Prozac; they are the ascetic monks of deconstruction.

Remember the woman at the end of your cul-de-sac who seemed always to be pregnant? Whom you never saw except once a year when she emerged from the station wagon with another package swaddled in her arms? In some termite species the queen spends most of her ten- to 15-year life span swollen in an exorbitant pregnant stupor, immobilized by fecundity, a thousand times as heavy as her offspring, resembling nothing so much as a boiled potato, an egg-laying virtuoso who can daily provide thousands of new recruits for the colony. She reclines in a dark, thick-walled chamber in the depths of the termitary. A ring of attendants feeds her and grooms her and protects her eggs. Her mate, the king, lies sprawled on her abdomen in an endless blaze of insemination, never depleted, always managing, somehow, to respond to her call.

Out on Chokecherry Lane, in Outer Linda Vista, have you seen the enforcers of the local Neighborhood Watch out on patrol with flashlights and cell phones? They could learn something about vigilance from their insect counterparts. Termite soldiers on the front lines hold back nothing in defense of the colony. When they detect a threat, they bang their heads against nearby surfaces to spread the alarum. (Michael Kuzma, the California exterminator, recalled a revelatory moment of communion with termites, when in tapping a beam to detect hollowness he heard termite soldiers tapping back at him). If predators breach the walls of a termite fortress, soldiers will descend, using their bodies as mortar to plug the opening. Their patriotism can be ugly. Under strenuous attack, some soldiers have been known to expel anal secretions at their foes with such force that they disintegrate. “Explosive defecation,” May Berenbaum explains. “They blow their butts off for the colony.”

More utilitarian and less finicky than the typical nuclear family, termites elevate the use of shit to heights of dizzying resourcefulness. They are the engineers, the gourmands, the sculptors of shit. The “mud tunnels” that are the most common sign of suburban visitation by termites–covered arcades that allow subterranean termites to extend themselves across concrete foundations, transporting their climate with them while maintaining invisibility–are wrought from the readiest clay. Moreover, termites are constantly feeding one another, eating one another’s vomit and excrement, and thereby sharing with their mates the symbiotic microbes that live in their guts and do the actual work of breaking down cellulose into digestible form. A refined termite who affected distaste with the shit-eating order and opted to feed itself on wood alone would soon enough suffer hunger pangs. Without the assistance of the waste-borne microbes, wood is empty calories.

Barbara “Bambi” Thorne, an entomologist at the University of Maryland, knows the obscure secrets of the termite family as only a confidante can. Thorne is interested not just in praising termites, but in burying them too. She tells me that desperate overkill has been the traditional means of attacking termites: either surrounding a threatened house with a toxic moat of chemicals, and thus preventing the passage of termites through the soil, or wrapping the house in a tent and fumigating, subjecting the homeowners to the stigma of quarantine. Thorne’s research is based on her conviction that the future of termite control is local: setting termite bait traps that vastly reduce the volume of pesticide required and that don’t kill their targets until they’ve had a chance to return to their colony and promiscuously share the poison with their mates. This is no easy feat; termite families, with tens of thousands of members, may reside a hundred yards from the house they infest–a long way for a dying worker to stagger before spreading doom among its kin. Nonetheless, Thorne is fine-tuning the process by which termite family values become the mechanism for termiticide. Turn the porch light off; Linda Vista is safe.

I’ve still never seen a wild, living termite. But that’s OK. I don’t know how to fix a leaky sink, and I haven’t defrosted my freezer since before the Gulf War, and when I have bugs that I can’t handle with my shoe I try not to turn on the kitchen light. I share with those of my ilk an average fear of interpersonal commitment and a well-developed suspicion of invisible powers.

But I now know that the suburbanite’s dream–endless green lawns, the thrum of sprinklers, low property taxes, victory in Little League, two-for-one coupons at Blockbuster, a world without termites–is more than just a bachelor’s anxiety attack; it’s an ecological nightmare. Were a poison pill developed that would rid the world of termites and put an end to all science-fictional tremors of morbid gnawing, we would likely find ourselves dwindling in an oxygen-thin haze. According to Barbara Thorne, there would be no tropical rainforests without termites. The rich vegetation of the rainforests is greedy for nutrients and has the paradoxical effect of sapping the rainforest soil. “Termites,” Thorne explains, “can decompose trees, blowdowns, downed branches, whatever falls to the ground in a tropical rainforest–and then return those nutrients to the soil. They do it pretty quickly, too. Bacteria and fungi break down trees, but they do it a lot more slowly than termites.” The ultimate function of termite shit is to serve as ecosystem fertilizer. For better and for worse, termites are at heart indiscriminate composters, and their underground excavating has the added effect of churning the soil like a plow. Can they be blamed for thinking that your house wants to return to the earth, to feed the earth, to make the plot of land that you’ve built on ripe for vegetation? Even in temperate forests, even in deserts, our homes get splashed–and sometimes flooded–by their relentless and ecologically vital current. Michael Haverty, an entomologist with the Forest Service, says, “Without termites, we’d be up to our butts in wood in a hurry. The forests would be clogged.” One species of termite that Haverty studied in the Sonoran Desert was responsible for recycling up to a fifth of the annual production of dead trees and cacti cluttering the landscape.

Think about that when you find your next mud tunnels, when you’re kept awake by an incessant imagined scratching in the dense heart of your hardwood. Things could be a lot worse.

It’s another restless night in Linda Vista Addition. The trash collector stopped coming by weeks ago. The garbage disposal is backed up. The plumbing goes nowhere. Unrelieved waste, waste with no outlet, waste accumulating, the ascendancy of waste. Your memory is sluggish. You can’t find your way back to your reproductive chamber. Is this the fumigated paradise? The paradise in which the despised workers of the invisible depths have been eradicated? Everything is visible now, and it’s not looking so good. You’re forced to live in unpleasant proximity to every crumpled paper towel, every discarded envelope, every matchstick, and every failed carpentry project. A stack of pizza cartons reaches to the ceiling, and with fond remorse you are transported back to bachelorhood, to those careless days, bathed in sepia, when you could spend a Saturday in the most unlikely places looking for termites, because you knew that one way or another they were there.

Mark Levine wrote about Butte, Montana, in the September 1996 issue of Outside.

Illustration by Jonathon Rosen