As a student in Wageningen, Niels Kerstes researched termites. As an alumnus, he has combined his expertise with his talents as an illustrator to create a book for children entitled Ietje Termietje (Tiny Termite).
© Niels Kerstes
Termites are incredibly interesting little animals. Consider, for example, their gender neutrality. ‘When termites are born, they can become whatever they choose. It makes no difference if you’re male or female. Every male can become a soldier, a worker or the king,’ Kerstes explained. ‘And females can also become soldiers, workers or the queen. The future is completely open, which isn’t true of many other social insects.’
The way in which a termite’s life develops depends on its surroundings. If there are already a lot of workers, the termite will probably become a soldier. According to Kerstes, these processes are partially determined by secreted pheromones. Kerstes became fascinated by termites as a biology student in Wageningen. He spent a few months in South Africa studying fungus-farming termites.
‘I saw with my own eyes the sort of amazing things that these small insects are capable of. I wanted to share my experiences and astonishment in my book Ietje Termietje. In his book Kerstes follows the life of Ietje, a tiny female. ‘The book tells the story of her life and, en passant, I explain how a termite mound is built and what everyone’s role is in its construction.’
The drawings illustrate Ietje’s progress through life. No one is surprised when she becomes the queen. The book is meant for children of about seven, and what could be more wonderful than to become a queen? ‘But from the narrative point of view, Kerstes explained, ‘I needed to fully explain the lifecycle of a termite colony.’ He also added that it’s really no so great to be a queen.
‘Kings and queens can become as old as 30 years, which puts them among the longest living insects. And all that time they live in the same room and have only one task: prucing fertilized eggs. The rear section of a queen’s body is so large that she can’t move. She’s just an egg factory.’ Until she dies – but this book doesn’t reach that far.
Kerstes’s illustrations are simple, recognizable and colourful. ‘I’m very happy with the results. I drew a lot at primary and secondary school, but I stopped when I was studying in Wageningen. I only started this hobby again after my PhD work in Zurich.’ Drawing is still a hobby. ‘I’d like to do more with this, but it’s difficult.’
One of Kerstes’s jobs is as an editor for De Buiten-dienst, a nature programme from the NTR for children. At the moment, he’s also working at Naturalis on a citizen science project to chart the effect of climate change and urbanization on garden snails. His book isn’t yet in the bookshops, but it can be ordered online.