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A Plague of Termites

Last month Chiang Mai was engulfed — not with the smog that has again descended on the city despite all the usual promises — but by a biblical plague. For three nights just after sunset when the moon was at its fullest the air filled with swarms of tiny winged-insects intent on sneaking into my shirt, down the back of my trousers and dive bombing my beer.

But what the heck are these things? Where do they come from? Do they herald the Apocalypse? And why do they want to get inside my clothes?

Some call them flying ants. However, even the most amateur of entomologists will see immediately that the antennae on these critters are straight rather than elbowed, that both sets of wings are of an equal length where an ant has front wings that are longer than the back and there is no visible waist where an ant, of course, has a thin waist separating the thorax from the abdomen. All of which leads us to the obvious conclusion that these irritating bastards are not flying ants but winged termites.
Fortunately I live but a stone’s throw from Chiang Mai’s Museum of World Insects and Natural Wonders. Ever the committed investigative journalist, I knew this would be the very place to provide everything I could ever wish to know about these airborne ephemera. Unfortunately it must be 40-plus degrees outside, so even a short walk is utterly out of the question. Committed I may be, but mental I am not.

Fortunately Thailand provides the very resource needed for this sort of thing. Just a click away on the interweb is the fount of all knowledge on phenomena relating to the Land of Smiles — ThaiVisa.com.

Just why these tiny wood-munchers take to the air in their billions is a moot point for the many experts on the forum. Some argue that they are looking for new places to live. This seems plausible, but why take to the air just after the sun goes down when everything that likes to eat them comes out to play? Bats, toads, geckos and the like seem to have a gay old time filling their bellies with these high -protein morsels. Indeed, according to a friend, they are a delicacy for Thais too, who exploit the insect’s light-loving tendencies to gather them by the thousands for a tasty salty roast. I remember hearing of Citylife’s gardener Uncle Sin, spending hours with an open jar in front of a hole in the ground, waiting to collect them as they emerge from the underworld to sell in the market for nearly a thousand baht a kilo. The Thai name for these apparently suicidal critters rather pleasingly translates as ‘drunken insects’.*

Another theory is that under the full moon flying termites take to the wing for one massive reproductive orgy before they die. I quite like this idea and it makes me feel slightly better about sharing my beer with the beasties. After all, what better way to give up the ghost after an evening of shagging than with a few gulps of Chang?

At this point I feel it important to offer up a cautionary tale on just how destructive flying termites can be if they do decide to take up residence in a house. This tragic story comes from a ThaiVisa member. Finding that he had to fly home for a few months, he entrusted his house to his son-in-law. On returning to Thailand he was horrified to find that half his furniture had disappeared without a trace. On asking his son-in-law what the hell had happened, he was informed that termites had infiltrated the residence and proceeded to devour a large portion of his possessions. A sad state of affairs and something I think we can all learn from.

I am still unsure as to whether swarms of these wee winged beasties herald the end of the world, but it seems they commonly come out en-force before a rainstorm. But it’s the sunny season, and a downpour seems very unlikely. Has the changing state of our world upset the termites’ natural rhythm? Is this the first of a number of plagues God is about to throw at the world? Why will there only be six episodes in the final series of Game of Thrones?

Whatever brings a gazillion flying termites out to dance around street-lights, tickle tourists and fill up the helmets of motorcyclists may never truly be known, but I think this gives us all something to think about.

*Apparently ThaiVisa is not the encyclopaedia of all that is Thai, as I’d previously considered it. I have just been informed that the word ‘mao’ is not translatable as ‘drunk’ as the word has a different tone. However, as veracity has never been something anyone should come to my writing for, I will defer to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who once said: “It has always seemed to me that so long as you produce your dramatic effect, accuracy of detail matters little”. So, for the purposes of this piece, those little flying buggers will remain ‘drunken insects’. It is, after all, far more fun to consider them thus.