Ant hills for building material

Although they are commonly referred to as “Ant hills,” particularly in Australia, the structures in question are actually “Termite hills.” Despite their physical similarities to ants, termites are actually related to cockroaches rather than ants. However, like ants, they are small and numerous. One significant difference between the two is that termites are white in color. This makes them highly susceptible to damage from sunlight. To protect their food sources, such as wood, from the sun’s rays, termites construct a coating of clay and saliva, known as “sheeting,” over them.

Termites also use the same material, known as “sheeting,” to construct their mounds. The color of the mound can vary depending on the local coloration of the clay used. Even if the topsoil and surrounding biomass of ant hills are the same color in different locations, the color of a termite mound can still differ based on the types of clay available in and around the mound.

Termite mound structure

Termite mounds are complex structures that consist of both underground and above-ground components. These structures include ventilation shafts and passages, a royal chamber, incubation chambers, fungi gardens, and base chambers. The location of the royal chamber varies depending on the termite species. But most often it is located at the same level as the surrounding soil. However, it can be located up to 1 meter above or below this level. Worker termites are responsible for maintaining a constant temperature of 32°C within the mound. They achieve this by frequently opening and closing the main ventilation shaft using clay material.

The activities of termites and ants can be determined by observing their mounds. The outer layer of the mounds gets hardened by the sun. Modifications to the ventilation shafts can be seen through changes in color if the mound is active. If a mound is no longer active, the outer layer will wear down after rainfall. And after such an occasion the chambers inside will become visible. It’s important to note that based on conservation reasons only material from inactive mounds should be used for construction purposes.

Use of termite mound material for domestic construction

If an inactive termite mound is found and local laws permit, pieces of the mound can be broken down and crushed into coarse grains. When mixed with water, this clay and termite saliva mixture can be used to create a durable floor in tropical climates. This practice was particularly common in Northern Australia. There, the material was used not only for flat floors but also for building 3D structures such as ring-shaped storage silos.

Termite mounds for pizza ovens, fireplaces and ice chests.

Another less labor-intensive way to use termite mounds is to repurpose them as baking ovens, fireplaces, and even ice chests. This is due to their firmness and good insulating properties. In modern times, termite mounds have been used to build pizza ovens, as seen in a restaurant in Southern Africa. Additionally, there are ongoing tests in Ethiopia to replace refractory bricks and -masses with termite clay in rural areas.

Lessons learned about termite mound material

  • The clay material from inactive termite mounds can serve as a durable alternative to concrete, with the added benefit of being breathable.
  • It is possible to construct baking ovens, fireplaces, or ice chests within inactive termite mounds.