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White Ants

A pest by any other name…

Dumb parts, properly connected into a swarm, yield smart results.{a}

Perhaps more than just the enslaved were liberated from intercepted slave-ships

White Ants

Termite Facts

The most common kind live in the soil from just below the surface to as much as 4m down. Up to two million termites inhabit a colony. These colonies consist of a network of tunnels and chambers built around a King and Queen whose sole job is to reproduce. In fact, in some of the 55 termite species, queens can lay up to 86,000 eggs a day. Often the queen’s swollen body can weigh more than a pencil. The rest of the colony is made up of termites who all play specific roles in keeping the colony healthy. Among these termites are the workers. Worker termites keep busy 24 hours a day digesting wood fibres and other forms of cellulose which they eat, digest and share with the other members of the colony. Workers also clean the royal pair, the King and Queen, and carry away the eggs.

More on the Wikipedia.

‘White Ants’ is the local name for termites; for one of two reasons (or maybe both…). (1) At first site, termites may appear to be small ants; only white. (2) The name ‘white ants’ could have descended from early English (the word ‘termite’ was introduced in the 18th Century).

There are two types of termite on St Helena: Brown and White, but the term ‘White Ants’ is applied to both.


There are two theories about how they got here…

Below: First arrival theorySecond arrival theoryAnd the answer is…

First arrival theory

It is generally said that termites were introduced to St Helena in the 1840s when Slavers were being intercepted by the Royal Navy and brought to St Helena for the captives to be liberated. The serviceable ships were sold but many were in a very poor condition and these were broken up and the wood used in construction projects or just for firewood. The common belief is that at least one of these broken-up ships was infested by termites that thereby got a foothold on St Helena.

Tree destroyed
Tree destroyed
Papers destroyed
Papers destroyed

Over the following decades the termites ravaged Jamestown and commenced spreading throughout the island. Many buildings, including Churches and fine Historic Buildings were infected. Many were lost. In 1853 a ‘White Ant Committee’ was set up but it was unable to stem the tide. Fulminate of Mercury was tried, as later was DDT, both now banned and only marginally effective. From the Records:

When The Market was constructed in 1865 it was built entirely from metal. In 1927 60 nests were discovered in the vicinity of Plantation House.

Those buildings that were restored now feature metal structural elements where previously these would have been wooden, many of these being re-used railway tracks, maybe from Our (Other) Railway. The roof structure at St. James’ Church, for example, has metal struts where there would previously have been wooden beams, as do all other older churches.

Modern buildings use termite-resistant timbers - teak and iroko - and lintels are usually made of concrete. Lime Hemp has also been proposed as an Eco-friendly termite-resistant building material, as have Bamboo and Eucalyptus (suitably treated).

It is thought that rain prompts the termites to leave their nests (they fly!) and found new colonies; the wet soil is more readily penetrated to form a new nest. A prolonged period of heavy rain was blamed for an outbreak of termite infections in Levelwood in 2015.

It isn’t just wood that the termites destroy. They eat anything containing cellulose. As the worshippers at St. James’ Church found in 1861, they eat paper and the early records of local charity the Women’s Corona Society were eaten by termites while stored in the President’s home. Some of the papers stored in the Post Office Building were destroyed and the Public Library also suffered. They also invade trees, and these are frequently felled revealing severe termite-damage which could, if left undetected, have caused the tree to collapse catastrophically, without warning. Fabrics are also susceptible, and when a new Roman Catholic Priest arrived in 2008 he brought with him a plaster Virgin Mary to replace the old wooden one that the termites had eaten.

This from the St Helena News Review, 18th December 1981:

The famous Norfolk Pines near the entrance to the Kingshurst Community Centre no longer stand so tall, straight and commanding for on Monday the tree nearest the main road was toppled by the gusting wind and it crashed across the road severing the main electricity line and blocking the road. The real cause of this totally unexpected event became apparent when the base of the tree was inspected. Only the bark and a strip of wood about 2inches thick had been holding the tree upright - the rest of the 3 feet diameter trunk was completely eaten out by white ants.

Not trusting to luck twice over (the tree fell just after school had closed and children and school buses had just passed by) the second tree was felled on Tuesday and so the towering giants ended their days at the Scotland sawmill. Kingshurst doesn’t look the same without them.

Second arrival theory

Another theory recently advanced by some historians is that actually termites arrived much earlier, probably before human visitors, perhaps on a log drifting across from Africa, which is how many of our endemic species’ ancestors are believed to have arrived here. This theory is supported by the fact that one of the St Helena ‘White Ant’ species has recently been classified as globally unique and it seems unlikely that it could have evolved to become unique if they were only introduced in around 1840. A counter to this new theory is that there are no records of damage attributed to termite attacks before the middle to late 19th century and if termites were already present, why were their attacks not noted before? To which the answer might be that they did attack, but the damage was mis-attributed to some other cause.

And the answer is…

As with any revision of accepted truth{1}, the debate on the new theory will continue until somebody comes up with some convincing evidence that proves or disproves it. We’ll update this page as soon as we hear!

White Ants are so important they have their own Ordinance: The Termites Ordinance.

The Crallan Report (1974) says:

Infected timber from a broken-up slave ship, brought to St Helena around 1840 when the Island was being used as a depot to serve England’s war on the Slave Trade, caused a disaster which cost the Island dear and from which it still suffers. By the early 1960s Jamestown was in a state of collapse, with roofs and floors falling in and even walls tottering from the destruction of timber lintels and strains of collapsed roofs. One well-known description likens the town to one divested by an earthquake. Kitching describes how Governor Charles Elliot dealt with the disaster by raising a loan privately. It meant not only that all the decayed timber had to be replaced with costly termite-proof hardwood such as teak - (nowadays only Iroko is used for all woodwork) - but that slated roofs, which require timber battens for fixing, became hopelessly uneconomic. (The cost of importing them had always made a material cheap in England into a costly one on St Helena). The large timber members such as girders and bressumers were replaced with scrap railway lines, a cargo of which had by happy accident found its way to the Island.

A further side effect was the alterations which undoubtedly occurred during the process of rescue. Parapets with their relatively costly lead guttering behind, were in some cases taken down to allow the new corrugated iron roofing to discharge direct to a simple eaves gutter. Needless to say, the effect on Georgian design and proportions could be ruinous.

It must surely have been as a result of termites that some unexpected cast iron features were introduced, the most prominent being The Market and the prettiest, the main staircase in The Castle.

The spread of termites from Jamestown to the buildings in the Country, and over the mountains to Sandy Bay, took a long time, and certain authorities still claim that there are no termites on the South Side. This claim is disputed by others, and it is accepted building practice that softwood is no longer safe to use anywhere.

Other ‘White Ants’

White ant Facebook comment

In addition to the ‘official’ meaning explained above, a few Saints also use the term ‘White Ants’ for a somewhat darker purpose - as a derogatory term for the British ex-pats brought here to help run the Government. The term is officially discouraged and is probably racist. It surfaces occasionally in the media, for example in this fragment of a letter published in The Independent on 6th December 2013:

…Why all our concerns to our newspaper, the Independent? Nobody from government or those that are supposed to look out for us don’t reply. It would be nice if they did. Especially our water is a disgrace on the part of St Helena Government. Government say ‘value for money’ - it must be a joke. A white ant joke it looks like - please do something about our discoloured smelly yellowish water or go home now.

The cartoon below appeared in The Independent on 7th July 2017 (p35). Some thought it was racist, saying that the ‘white ants’ referred to the ex-pat Government Officials running St Helena. A complaint was made under the Media Standards Ordinance 2011 but the St Helena Media Commission decided that the cartoon was acceptable (there is no appeal to such a judgement).

Read More

Below: Extract from Biology of Termites: a Modern SynthesisArticle: Boffin’s gut feeling in bio-fuel questNot just here.And finally…

Extract from Biology of Termites: a Modern Synthesis


Published by Springer Science & Business Media, 20th Oct 2010{2}

Heterotermes Perfidus. Gay (1967, 1969) notes that this species was described from St Helena Island in the South Atlantic Ocean, but was an introduced termite of unknown origin. Gay notes that the species was originally considered to be Heterotermes Tenuis from South America before it was given a new description (Leucotermes Perfidus) by Silvestri in 1936, and then considered to be Heterotermes Platycephalus from Australia by Emerson in 1951. Gay states definitively that there is no doubt now, however, that Heterotermes Perfidus is a valid species not referable to any other described species of Heterotermes, however he did not provide evidence for this statement. Snyder (1949) lists the original description of this species as the only reference in his catalogue and only one other study has been reported since the description, that of Bacchus (1979) who used long-established (possibly 30-40 years) lab colonies in the UK to study exocrine glands. The question arises as to whether Heterotermes Perfidus really is a valid species, but the history of the termite on the island is less contentious. Gay (1967, 1969) states this termite is believed to have been introduced into St Helena about 1840 when a captured Slaver was brought into the port of Jamestown… Given such an origin, it seems likely that the termite originated from either West Africa, South America, or the Caribbean. There are six pest species of Heterotermes in South America, two of which are known invaders, including islands in the Caribbean. There are several Heterotermes species in Africa, although less well known, and Australia as well. Of comparative interest, the four ant species on St Helena island are all invasive tramp species; two pantropical and two African (Taylor and Wilson 1961). Until the species status of Heterotermes Perfidus is resolved, the species remains classed as invasive.

Article: Boffin’s gut feeling in bio-fuel quest

Published by Associated Press, November 2007{2}

A team of US scientists poring over the intestines of a tropical termite have a gut feeling that a breakthrough in the quest for cleaner, renewable petrol is in store.

Tucked in the termite’s nether regions, they say, is a treasure trove of enzymes that could make next-generation bio-fuels, replacing fossil fuels that are dirty, pricey or laden with geopolitical risk. Termites are typically a curse, inflicting billions of dollars in damage each year by munching through household timber with silent, relentless ease. But gene researchers say the hind gut of a species of Central American termite could harbour a potential gold mine of microbes which exude enzymes to smoothly break down woody fibres and provide the insect with its nutrition.

Present-generation bio-fuels are derived from corn, sugar and other crops, whose starch is converted into ethanol by enzymes, fermentation and distillation. One of the problems, though, is that this product entails converting food into fuel. Hefty US subsidies to promote bio-ethanol is having price repercussions across swathes of the global food market.

Next-generation bio-fuels, though, would use non-food cellulose materials, such as wood chips and straw. But these novel processes, hampered by costs and complications, are struggling to reach a commercial scale. The termite’s tummy, though, could make all the difference.

Like cows, termites have a series of intestinal compartments that each nurture a distinct community of microbes. Each compartment does a different job in the process to convert woody polymers into the kind of sugars that can then be fermented into bio-fuel. The US team has now sequenced and analysed the genetic code of some of these microbes in a key step towards - hopefully - reproducing the termite’s miniature bioreactor on an industrial scale.

Their work, published in Nature, required scientists to venture into the rainforests of Costa Rica, where they plucked bulbous-headed worker termites from a large nest at the foot of a tree. Using fine forceps and needles, they extracted the contents of the third paunch, or hind gut, from 165 termites and sent this to a lab in California for sequencing. From this, some 71 million ‘letters’ of genetic code emerged, pointing to two major bacterial lineages called fibrobacters, which degrade cellulose, and treponemes, which convert the result to fermentable sugars.

Termite guts are incredibly efficient, says Dr. Andreas Brune of the Max Planck Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology in Marburg, Germany. In theory, they could transform an A4-sized sheet of paper into two litres of hydrogen.

Dr. Eddy Rubin, director of the Joint Genome Institute (JGI), an organisation that comes under the aegis of the US Department of Energy, said an important fundamental step had been made, even if a long road still lay ahead.

Scaling up this process so that biomass factories can produce bio-fuels more efficiently and economically is another story, said Rubin. To get there, we must define the set of genes with key functional attributes for the breakdown of cellulose and this study represents an essential step along that path, he said.

Not just here.

Termites are not just a problem in St Helena. This from 2008:

A trader in the Indian state of Bihar has lost his life savings after termites infested his bank safe deposit boxes and ate everything. The trader had deposited currency notes and investment papers worth hundreds of thousands of rupees in a bank safe in Patna, capital city of Bihar. The bank says it put up a notice warning customers of the termites. The trader says he did not see it in time as he did not go to the bank for months after the notice went up. Bank officials admit they did not inform the customers individually about the termite problem. The termites destroyed everything, the trader said. The Bank said customers cannot blame the bank unless the locker is broken or damaged. In this case the trader is not entitled to any compensation for his loss.

And finally…

A golfer up at Longwood was having a particularly difficult time. He had sliced his ball off the fairway and landed on a termite mound. He swished with his four-iron, thrashed with a wedge, but after 24 strokes he had only succeeded in demolishing the majority of the hill and killing and maiming the majority of the population of the mound. The remaining two termites looked at each other, wondering just what to do to be safe. One turned to the other and said I think I’ll just sit on the ball!


{a} Kevin Kelly


{1} For example that the official date for St Helena’s discovery is wrong…{2} @@RepDis@@