Science - February 23, 2017

Van Huis figures out cultural significance of termites

Roelof Kleis

Miners in Africa use termite mounds to determine whether valuable metals are hidden underground. That saves on drilling because the termites have already done that; they burrow up to tens of metres under the ground to obtain building materials for their mounds.

A termite mound in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. Photo: Shutterstock

Just one piece of trivia from a fascinating article by the emeritus professor of Entomology Arnold van Huis in the Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine. The paper is full of such facts. Van Huis acquired this knowledge during two sabbaticals in 1995 and 2000. He visited 27 countries and talked to more than 300 local entomologists about the cultural significance of insects and their consumption. He stored all that knowledge in a database and now that he is retired, he finally has the time to process it. Starting with the termites, but he promises us that there is more to come. ‘It will be a series. I’ve got much more information, on grasshoppers, beetles, flies, butterflies and caterpillars.’

It is difficult to draw conclusions from the mass of facts on termites. Van Huis: ‘But it is striking that all these peoples and cultures have roughly the same ideas and the same stories. It’s also remarkable how much respect people have for termite mounds. I hadn’t expected the supernatural and religious connotations that are ascribed to them. Termite mounds are associated with their forefathers, spirits and devils. Children greet their forefathers when they pass a termite mound and offerings are left there.’

Van Huis mainly aims to record and document the information. ‘I’m not really interested in whether the stories are true or not. I just wrote up what people told me.’ He adds that you have to be very careful about drawing conclusions. ‘There is a water beetle in East Africa that looks like a breast. Young women let the beetle bite their breasts in the hope that this will make them more attractive. I often thought this must just be a superstition. Until I came across an article that showed these creatures are full of hormones. So you have to be careful about calling something a superstition.’