Termites—to the glory of God!
Don Batten interviews termite expert, Dr Victor Meyer
Victor Meyer was born and raised in South Africa in a devoutly Christian family with a Huguenot heritage.1 Taking on his father’s love of the outdoors, Victor gained employment as a Cadet Ranger with the Natal Parks Board, and worked in remote parts of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN). He conducted general range work and anti-poaching patrols, and later game capture duties. This kindled an interest in termites and earned masters and doctoral degrees from the University of Pretoria for his research. He also discovered a previously unknown woodlouse that has been named after him.
Victor, his wife Debbie, and daughter Nadine, immigrated to New Zealand in 2004. He works as a technical writer for an organisation that services health professionals in NZ, Australia, and the UK. Although medical science presents a learning curve, Victor finds links to invertebrate disease vectors (arthropods transmitting infections) very rewarding, as it complements his entomological background.
From Victor’s conversion to Christ at a young age, he took the Bible at face value, i.e. to be the inspired Word of God. His father encouraged him to believe the Bible’s history, including the world-wide Flood of Noah. While he thus always leaned towards the biblical (‘young earth’) timeframe, during his university studies he toyed with an ‘old earth’ view, via the flawed Gap Theory. He also flirted with the idea of a local flood, against his father’s advice. He had been influenced by Dr Hugh Ross’s teachings on origins—some of these were broadcast on South African national TV in the late 1980s or early 1990s. Victor shared, “Because of Ross’s smooth talking and academic-sounding fervour, his presentations impressed me. I even subscribed to his newsletters in the mid-1990s, which hindered me from investigating the biblical text and scientific evidence for the age of the earth.”
However, Victor’s confidence in biblical creation was re-established, mainly through reading the “renowned book trilogy by Dr Jonathan Sarfati of Creation Ministries International”.2 Victor remarked that “the logical, coherent, scientific approach with the highest regard for Scripture was both impressive and convincing.”
He remains wary of mindsets that stand against the plain reading of Scripture. The deeper layers of the original meaning cannot be peeled back if the plain reading of the text is outright dismissed as allegory. How could Christians believe in the Resurrection of Christ, which forms the basis of our faith and utterly defies the physical laws of science, but not in instantaneous creation within the Bible’s God-inspired record of the timeframe?
The mere thought of termites might evoke images of destruction of houses, and the nearest pest control company! In natural habitats, however, termites are beneficial and an integral part of ecosystems. Termites are very efficient at reducing woody litter to simple organic compounds. They are pivotal in nutrient cycling, as Victor found during his in-depth study of mound-building termites in the northern Kruger National Park (KNP).
His Masters3 research required more than 400 kms (250 miles) of often uncharted bush-walking, where carnivores and dangerous herbivores roamed freely. Despite this—by the grace of God—Victor’s life was never in jeopardy. He studied termite mounds in the northern parts of the park, determining that soil types helped determine their density and distribution. This work was awarded cum laude (distinction).
For his Ph.D. in entomology (University of Pretoria),4 Victor studied the most abundant mound-builder in the KNP, Macrotermes natalensis. He excavated small, medium, and large mounds to determine the number of individuals comprising each colony. The tallest mound found by Victor and his diligent tracker measured 5.3 m (17 ft) high, and was estimated to contain close to a million termites, based on counts of smaller mounds.
He and co-workers found, among other discoveries, that the proportion of termite soldiers tends to decrease as a colony ages and reproductive success peaks.5 This makes sense because defence of the colony is no longer such a priority, so the energy cost of producing soldiers is reduced.
Disinvestment in soldiers benefits the colony because more workers means that nutrient cycling is increased; more labour is required for food gathering beyond the scavenged areas around large nests. A continual trade-off between workers and soldiers is thus maintained. The results also provided baseline data against which future population trends could be measured, and as such, were incorporated into the KNP Management Plan.6
A new species named after Dr Meyer
Dr Meyer discovered a new species of terrestrial isopod (woodlouse) in 1995, and it has recently been named after him—Ctenorillo meyeri.7 This isopod is found only in close association with termites, hence the term ‘termitophilous’ (liking termites). It benefits from the relationship with the termite colony without harming it (called ‘commensalism’). This is the first example of a termitophilous species in the family Armadillidae. Apart from other details, this little crustacean can roll up into a ball to protect itself, and has an important co-ecological role to play in nutrient cycling.
Dr Meyer is now part of a research team to revise the classification of New Zealand’s isopods.
Termite colonies—a testimony to divine creation
Colony-forming termites are ‘eusocial’ insects, meaning that a single female queen produces the offspring, with some males called ‘kings’. Then non-breeding workers care for the brood, and soldiers defend the nest. Building nests and regulating the temperature of the brood each require a lot of coordinated cooperation. How could such eusociality have evolved? As Dr Meyer says, “The ‘pin-head’ brain of a termite is hardly capable of reasoning that joining forces with other individuals and living in a colony are more beneficial to survival than sticking it out on its own.” And if an individual had a mutation that caused it to not breed (worker or soldier), that mutation needed for eusociality would be lost! The system is a ‘package deal’ where all the components have to work together for it to work at all. As Dr Meyer says, “Surely this communal lifestyle was set up by the Creator, as alluded to in Proverbs 30:25.”
There are various degrees of sociality in the over 2,000 termite species, and evolutionists have imagined that this provides a basis for believing in the evolution of the eusocial system. However, Dr Meyer thinks the evidence better supports a loss of eusocial organisation—in those that don’t have it—from an original created eusocial system.
Evolutionists propose the living species Mastotermes darwiniensis (from northern Australia) as a ‘primitive’ termite, because it has some similarities to cockroaches. However, fossils dated by evolutionary reasoning as ‘Cretaceous’, supposedly over 100 million years old, closely resemble this species, so it is yet another ‘living fossil’. This is not evidence for evolution, but ‘stasis’, or created kinds reproducing according to their kinds (Genesis 1).
How do termites digest wood?
Animals, including termites, do not have the enzymes needed to digest wood. Termites use microbes to do it. Some have them in their gut (microbes called flagellates). Others cultivate fungi in ‘gardens’ inside their nests and harvest the enzymes from the fungi to digest the wood. This raises a question for evolutionists: if these insects ultimately evolved from microbes, why did the process lose the ability to digest wood? It would be a very useful trait for natural selection to preserve. However, it might also be destructive ecologically, which of course our Creator would have understood in designing the various kinds of life.
As a Christian, Dr Meyer is passionate about looking after the world God has given us. He is involved with various NZ conservation groups. However, he is no deep green ‘tree hugger’ for whom human life is of low priority. Humans are made in the image of God, and he believes that we have to balance human needs with conservation.
Dr Meyer indicated that he intends to keep reading and/or contributing to the wealth of sound literature that CMI produces. As well as bolstering his faith in God’s Word, this is in obedience to the command that we ought to be ready at all times to give evidence for the hope that is in us (1 Peter 3:15). For the believer, there can be no doubt that the Bible is true, and that the God of Abraham is the creator of the universe, who has our eternal destiny at heart.
As Victor says, “The intricacies of creation, such as the termite colony, display some of the glory of God as revealed in His creative brilliance.”
References and notes
- Huguenots were Christians who fled France in the 17th century due to persecution. Wijsenbeek, T., Identity lost: Huguenot refugees in the Dutch Republic and its former colonies in North America and South Africa, 1650 to 1750: A comparison, South African Historical Journal 59(1):79–102, 2007. Return to text.
- Sarfati, J., Refuting Evolution 1 & 2 and Refuting Compromise, available from creation.com/store. Return to text.
- Meyer, V., Distribution and density of mound-building termites in the northern Kruger National Park, M.Tech. thesis, Technikon Pretoria, 1997. Return to text.
- Meyer, V., Intracolonial demography, biomass and food consumption of Macrotermes natalensis (Haviland) (Isoptera: Termitidae) colonies in the northern Kruger National Park, South Africa, Ph.D. thesis, University of Pretoria, 2001. Return to text.
- Meyer, V. and four others, Intracolonial demography of the mound-building termite Macrotermes natalensis (Haviland) (Isoptera, Termitidae) in the northern Kruger National Park, South Africa, Insectes Sociaux 47(4):390–397, 2000. Return to text.
- Du Toit, J., Biggs, H. and Rogers, K. (Eds.), The Kruger Experience: Ecology and management of savanna heterogeneity, Island Press, 2003; limited preview via victormeyer.net/conservation.html. Return to text.
- Taiti, S., A new termitophilous species of Armadillidae from South Africa (Isopoda: Oniscidea), Onychium 14:9–15, 2018. Return to text.