When my husband and I have friends up to our casa near El Tonino for the first time, after admiring the view, the first two questions they inevitably ask are, “why is that pile of mud in a tree” and “what kind of tree is that?”
The answers are simple, but each one has a story attached.
The answer to the first question is “that pile of mud” is actually a termite mound. And, for reasons of their own, the termites chose to build this mound in a tree. A closer inspection gives our visitors a chance to not only see the mound (which sits quite securely in a tree in our backyard not too high above the ground, making this one easy to see up close) but also the mud tubes these cellulose-seeking insects build to travel through to search for food. The tubes are used like little covered highways. They protect the termites from harm; such as the strong rays of the sun, the rain or marauding insects, lizards and birds looking for juicy termites to snack on. (ick!) I have seen some termite mounds quite high up in trees, and then again I have seen them on fence posts. I wonder what the criteria is when a queen decides where she would like to set up her castle? Though it is technically a mound, I call it a castle… where else would a queen live?
The mud tubes can be seen running up the trunks and on the underside of larger branches in many different species of trees in the Jaltemba Bay area. If a person was to take a stick or something like that (my husband prefers his machete for any bug/lizard/snake interactions) to scrape away a small section of a mud tube, the termites would be plainly visible as their wider-than-an-ant body is usually a pale white colour (ants have a narrow waist and are usually much darker in colour).
It would be mostly the worker termites one sees, which are rather nondescript with straight bead-like antenna that curve out slightly; but the soldiers are more recognizable as they have a nasty looking set of mandibles which they use against enemy ants – by biting them in half!
Sections of the El Tonino road, which is north of La Peñita by about 6 kms and on the right, is a nearby area to see termite tree mounds and tube trails in a variety of trees like Parota, Higuera Blanca and Papelillo. I have been told that some of the wood from these types of trees, when used to manufacture products like cabinetry and trim, can be termite-proof or at least resistant. But it is interesting to see the termites actually living in these same trees and that’s because they apparently only eat the dead wood on the trees! Some other termite-proof and resistant woods are Bamboo, Mesquite, Amapa and Huanacaxtle (also known as Parota).
There are various species of termites. Some like it damp, some like it dry. Some prefer above ground and others below. They all eat wood, some eat fabric made from wood products and some have been found eating plastic. They have been caught building their nests between walls and in foundations. They all eat 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. And keep laying eggs. Thankfully, nature provides its own population control during the swarming of the termites (which is when all the queens and kings take flight together in search of their own castle sites) with birds, lizards and other insects taking advantage of this gathering to snap up the tasty flying treats. Termites shed their wings once a suitable place has been found, and then they begin the serious business of egg laying. Sometimes nature just can’t handle them all though, especially when the voracious eaters invade the space humans call their own.
Humans attempt to control termites with various chemical compounds that can be sprayed, pumped or drenched where the termites have been found – even the soil can be treated with long-lasting products that kill upon contact, perfect for the soil up against your foundations… but can you get these products in Mexico? I researched a few products and found that copper naphthenate is one, diazinon spray is another. These are usually available at an agricultural products store (in Mexico where you buy other sprays, poisons, traps and even animal feeds). Many locals in the Jaltemba Bay area just paint household wood furniture in a mixture of wood stain and diesel fuel then let the whole place air out for a couple of days. A quick Google search will expand your knowledge about the different ways of unburdening yourself of these destroyers of wooden furnishings and structures. At our casa? Hubby David made a deal with the termites; “you leave my house alone, and I’ll leave your house alone.” So far so good. Weird eh?
The answer to the second question is a lot shorter. The nest is built securely between the trunk and a branch of a Gringo Tree (more properly called a Gumbo-Limbo or its botanical name of Bursera simaruba and locally known as a Papelillo). Some of you may know this tree by another name – Tourist Tree. Why? Because it looks like a tourist… one that spent too much time in the sun, turned red and is now peeling!