Saturday, January 31, 2009

Entropy

Ultimately, the termites will win. Well, maybe not the termites directly, but the Second Law of Thermodynamics of which the termites are an agent. The entropy of the universe increases. Everything tends to disorder. Sooner or later, this house by the sea on a termite-infested island will turn to dust.

With a little luck, I can fight them to a standstill, at least until I turn to dust myself.

Every winter, I rout them out of their tunnels and caverns, rebuild shelves and sills and jambs. Every summer, in my absence, they gorge themselves on my defenseless house.

Bahamian damp-wood termites, mostly, Nasuatermitidae, which generally build their nests in trees, but will happily devour a house if provided.

They are fragile, soft-bodied insects, susceptible to injury from direct exposure to sunlight or slight changes in temperature and humidity. You'll see their climate-controlled, barrel-sized termitariums all over the island, in woods at the edge of the road or on the roofs of abandoned houses, constructed from particles of wood or soil cemented together with excrement and a secretion from glands in their heads. Heavily-traveled paths from the nest to the wood upon which the termites feed are covered over with the same material. The termites need never see the light of day.

Until I intrude on their privacy with my crowbar or chisel.

Somewhere, in a royal chamber, reside the queen and king. The queen's abdomen, in the fullness of her sexual maturity, achieves the size of a human thumb -- a bulbous egg factory attached to her tiny forefront. The union of the royal pair can last for decades, while their millions of offspring -- workers and warriors -- live and die, prevented from ever reaching sexual maturity by special hormones transmitted from parents to offspring by physical contact.

Sex-inhibitors are not the only vital substances they pass around. Each termite carries in its gut microscopic bacteria and protozoans which enable the insect to digest wood. Without the microbes, a termite starves. These invisible but indispensable creatures are maintained by the colony and conveyed from generation to generation like family heirlooms.

When a successful termite colony has outgrown its food supply, the king and queen stop producing sex inhibitor hormone. A generation of fertile offspring is produced, which, unlike their sterile brothers and sisters, are winged. On an evening when the temperature and humidity are right, they take to the air. The winged pioneers who survive the hazards of the Bahamian night -- bats, birds, insects, spiders, toads -- will establish new colonies.

And so the entropy of the world increases. At my expense.