Of the insects on this island of Hispaniola, and principally of the ants and termites.

Translated by Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert

That singular author of the Natural History[1] tells of the opinions held by some about ants and bees and similar animals having no blood; for those who have neither heart nor liver do not have blood, as those who do not breathe do not have lungs. A great debate stems from this, since we can hear the buzzing of the bees and the song of the cicadas; and hence Pliny says that when he contemplates nature he is persuaded never to consider anything in her workings to be impossible. And after having proposed several arguments in defense of this notion, as a natural scholar in these matters, he acknowledges that unlike other animals insects do not have blood. Just like the serpent, which has ink instead of blood, and the mollusks, which have that extract used for dyeing cloth, thus the insects have this humor, whatever it is, instead of blood. And the above-mentioned author says more: let everyone reach their own conclusions, since Piny’s purpose is to showcase the things that are manifest in nature, and not to make judgments about the mysteries that cause them.

To this purpose I will state that my intention is to write what I know and have seen about these matters and not to leave what is true unsaid just so that he who hears or reads my lines from afar may wonder or not wonder; nor do I want to attempt to surmise the reasons behind the effects of the novelties I describe, since I am neither so much a philosopher to understand them, nor do I want to linger in arguments; but based on what I have seen, I will tell what I have managed to understand or have felt about these matters.

So, to begin on the subject of the ants, I will say that there are many in this island of Hispaniola and in this city of Santo Domingo, more than we would like to have, and without doubt many fewer than there had been. Since beginning in the year 1519 and for the following two years or more there were so many that they did great harm throughout the island and on the plantations, destroying and burning the cassia fistula and orange trees and other beneficial trees, and the damage can still be felt today, even though (praise be to God) the swarm of ants subsided. During the period of this plague lasted we couldn’t live in the houses nor have anything to eat that would not be covered by tiny black ants. And even though it lasted some time it was not long enough for us to experience here what had happened in Spain, where a city was depopulated because of the burrowing of rabbits, as had happened in Tessalia because of moles, or in France, where a city was abandoned because of a multitude of frogs, or in Africa because of locusts; or Amicla, a city in Italy, lost because of snakes, and like them other towns and provinces by other similar plagues, as Pliny reminds of. Still, we are not lacking in ants; there are rather more than there is a need for in this land. There are some that are somewhat reddish and small that are bitter enemies of the others mentioned above; but that is not necessarily to our benefit. And it is a wonderful thing to see how in a plantation where there happen to be ants of the two types it appears as if they had divided the land between them, as indeed they do, since the terrain and place occupied by one type, where no harm is done, and that occupied by the other, where the damage is shown, is clearly evident and known; and the good ones do not allow the bad ones to move into their terrain. I say what everyone in this city knows, and what I could demonstrate on a property of mine about a league from this city or could be seen in many parts and plantations on this island.

What took place in this city during the period of its worst travails and turmoil, when it was almost deserted due to the ants, is neither unrelated to our topic nor to the Christians’ devotion, as it can show the reader and those who hear of this that all true remedies come from God and that He sends these remedies through his mercy and through the intercession of his saints; and it happened in this way. As the Christians living on this island found themselves so troubled by the multitude of ants, the city agreed to choose a saint as its protector, and all approved of this; and to select this protector they cast their luck and put their trust on the very reverend Bishop Alexandre Geraldino, a priest devoted to Christ, who said a solemn pontifical mass and, after having consecrated and raised the Holy Sacrament and leading the townspeople in a devoted prayer, randomly opened a book from the catalogue of saints to name the protector God had chosen for his city and island against this plague of ants. And the choice fell on Saint Saturnino (whose feast falls on the 29th of November), glorious martyr and bishop who was born in Rome and was so saintly that the Pope sent him to Toulouse, and upon entering the city gates all the idols went silent, and one of the gentiles said that if they didn’t kill Saturnino their gods would cease to respond to them; for this reason they tied him to the legs of a bull so it would drag him and cruelly tear him apart, as it is told in more detail in the story of his glorious martyrdom.

And after God gave this saint to the city as its protector the plague of the ants came to an end and they were reduced in number to such a degree that the harm they inflicted became tolerable, and little by little they have diminished in number through the divine clemency and intercession of this blessed protector and martyr. I note in this mystery that Bishop Alexandre Giraldino was Roman and a very devoted prelate, and that this saint came from his Roman homeland; to note, as his story tells us, the idols went mute and in these parts all the Indians were idolatrous. From which we can ascertain the significance of the selection of this saint, that God wished that idolatry be thwarted and vanished from these parts and that his holy name and Catholic faith be proclaimed, to his praise and worship; and Catholics should take note and act accordingly so that all plagues will cease and the Lord’s ire be appeased and removed from us.

Turning back to the story, I say that the variety of ants in this island is broad and complex, as I have said, and some of them are very harmful to sugar and other types of plantations. Some ants are bigger than those I have mentioned, and they are red and fond of biting and the bite is very painful; but the pain goes away quickly if one is not bitten by too many; but in their wake they leave a burning feeling, like fire, like a rash. And these are equally harmful to the plantations in the countryside; but there are fewer of them, and they are not found everywhere. There are others even larger than these, and those are black, and these are the ones that during certain times of the year grow wings, and then there are so many of them that the air is full of them. There are others known as termites, which are very little and have white heads, and are very harmful to buildings, to the foundations as well as the walls, and also to the wood and roofs and floors of houses. These come out of the wood, like crawlers sprouting out, and penetrate it and roam around buildings wherever they like, and they carve a track or tunnel-like path as thick as a writing pen and sometimes as thick as a finger or a bit smaller, and this path is visible in relief on the walls or beams through which they move. And where this work ends or various paths come together, they cluster, coming together into a mass or paste of the same material with which they build their tunnels or vaults, as big as a man’s head or like a pitcher that could hold half—or even a full—arroba of water or more. And sometimes, when they build their communities on trees, these clusters can grow as large as a man could encompass in his embrace or puts his arms around. In short, they destroy houses and it is necessary to burn and uproot these termites, because they are very harmful. These tunnels and paths and dwellings they build are of a materiel no one can understand, almost black in color, and very dry, and it breaks easily when touched with a stick or finger, if one wishes to break them; but there are so many of them, and they are so quick, that they soon turn to rebuild the parts that have been damaged. These places where they gather in the largest numbers is where they build their nests and reproduce, and there they rot and weaken the wood or beams on which they set or build their dwellings, and they leave them damaged and full of holes like a beehive, spongy and hollow; and they cause even worse damage to houses than moths do to clothes.

There is another type of termite or ant that builds the same type of vaulted tunnels and those large clusters where they reproduce, except that their dwellings are more clearly built of earth and their color is a lighter brown that looks like earth although they are not solely made of earth. This other type of termite is a different kind of animal because it is not properly an ant, as we said above of the other kind of termite, but they are half ant and the other half is like a worm or takes the form of a worm from the waist down, a worm encased in a sheath like a white shell that trails behind them, the size of a grain of rye or a little bigger. And it is no less harmful to houses and buildings and wood beams than the termites described above; but not as destructive to stone structures or fences as the other ones. Despite the damage they do, there is a positive side to these termites, and that is that they are very useful as chicken feed; the clusters or dwellings are detached from the trees in the countryside and once brought to the houses they are broken in front of the chickens, which promptly eat them all, and they grow fat with them and grow very well when fed this food. All the ants and termites are creatures of great diligence and fond of republican living, and so it seems that they live communally and their food is shared among them. And to understand their diligence and what they can achieve through their steadfastness, I will say that even if the pass a very hard stone along their accustomed path, they mark it and know its placement and route. But since there is much to say about these and other ants in the second part, where I will write about matters concerning the Mainland, we will move on to other matters and similar animals respecting this island of Hispaniola.

[1] Pliny, Book XI, Chapter 3. [GFO]