Termite alates © Mike Gillam
By MIKE GILLAM
The subtropical monsoon arrives pumping moisture into the arid interior and we look northwards, our optimism encouraged by the gathering cumulus. The BOM satellite images confirm our suspicion that Tennant Creek and the Tanami Desert are getting a drenching. Humidity soars.
We curse, sweat in torrents and renew our vows never to take that job in tropical Darwin. We’re a touch envious but happy for Tennant 500 kilometres to the north because they’ve endured such a long run of very high temperatures, an uncomfortable glimpse of our own future perhaps.
The rain sweeps through Ti Tree and south-east across the Plenty into the northern Simpson Desert and inland Queensland. It’s not close enough to smell but the temperature drops a couple of degrees and we dare to hope. On this occasion we get strong winds, no rain and no tantalising petrichor, but we do get flies in biblical proportions, pesky, sticky and thirsty from the pastoral country to the north.
Centralians pride themselves in being fairly stoic when it comes to flies but hell, we expect the bad to be wrapped up with the core benefits of actual rain. Humidity and hordes of flies are a testing combination. Reason and logic are an early casualty in the town’s mood. After a week of punishment even the atheists are feeling distinctly ripped off by the weather gods. There’s a run on fly veils.
Eventually, with lightning and the ritual fanfare of galahs hanging from the power lines, it does come and we all rejoice. Winged termites on their nuptial journey appear at the kitchen window and I go outside to see if I can locate any nests. On a red-gum trunk small lizards are excitedly snapping up termites that land on the flaking bark. The feasting skinks are not alone and must remain vigilant for predators such as kingfishers attracted by this sudden bounty.
I discover an outpouring of winged alates, venting from the ground with the translucence of smoke. The energetic puffs of smoke quickly subside and I focus my attention on the throng around the lights.
They look very much like Coptotermes, a large and formidable species, productive or destructive, depending on your point of view. Thankfully there’s no termites pouring from our timber framed World War Two shed and we’re hugely relieved.
Now the alates seem hopelessly distracted, trapped in the thrall of the brightest car-park lights as microbats and occasional nightjars swoop through to pick them off.
I think of global warming and suppress a shudder. Occurring north of the tropic of Capricorn, the most destructive termite in the country, Mastotermes darwiniensis, is knocking on our front door.
Just as tropical marine fish are extending southwards down the east coast, is the great destroyer of organic materials also moving southwards? I consider the vulnerability of much of the town’s built environment and then I think of the trees!
A quick search on the internet reveals that several genera of local trees are resistant. So we’ll be planting even more Callitris (native pine), Melaleuca spp. (ti tree) and Brachychiton gregoryi (desert kurrajong) in the future.