Ant or Termite?

So, termites are fascinating animals and deserve to be respected in their own right instead of just being a comparison to ants. Let me know in the comments at the bottom of the page if you would be interested in some termite content. I am more of an ant person but would be willing to brush up on termites if you wanted me to. Any feed back and suggestions are welcome as well as any questions. On with the post!

On the surface, ants and termites are very similar animals. They both have Queens, live in colonies and termites are called ‘White ants’ sometimes. Evolutionary and genetically, ants and termites are very different. They are in different orders that last shared a common ancestor almost 400 million years ago. A long time! This roughly means that you are more related to an armadillo or a bat than ants are to termites. We share a common ancestor with bats that existed around 90 million years ago. Hymenoptera existed even before mammals did!

A very edited Tree showing some of the insects orders and how long ago the diverged in Millions of years. The chart was first used by Misof et al, referenced at the bottom of the page.

As we have already covered in a previous post, ants evolved from wasps. Termites on the other hand, evolved from cockroaches. Now this raises an interesting point which we’ve already covered. With Wasps and ants, it is difficult to tell where the eusociality evolved in that group. This is because there are eusocial Wasps and all ants are eusocial. With termites, this question is much simpler to answer. Termites live in organised colonies while cockroaches do not. This means it is much more likely that termites specifically evolved this while cockroaches did not.

Now you may have heard of termites being called white ants. This is extremely misleading. Like annoyingly misleading. This terminology originated in Australia where a lot of their termite species are lightly coloured. With the common misconceptions with ants and termites they will simply labelled as white ants. However, as we’ve said, termites are not ants. At all. Not even close.

While ants inherited their life cycles from their wasp-like ancestors, termites inherited their life cycles from their cockroach ancestors. Both start off as an egg, but this is where the similarities end. All ants undergo complete metamorphosis while termites undergo incomplete metamorphosis. When termite eggs hatch, they produce a nymph. This is essentially a small, immature version of the adults. Their role is essentially the same as ant larvae: eat and grow. Once they mature, they join the workforce within the colony. The differences don’t end there. All ant workers are female whereas termite workers are both male and female. Believe me when I say that termite life cycles are far more complex and different but I will not be able to cover it here. Like termite soldiers being able to become queens, or the fact that there are primary and secondary queens! I will stick with ants for now. Termites be crazy.

You may remember from a previous post that male ants mate and then die. Termites are different as they have kings. These reproductive males live for much longer, compatible to the queens. They will mate with the queens throughout the Queen’s life. Without a king, the colony will die out. The queens swell to colossal sizes with the largest being that of Macrotermes bellicosus, who’s queens can reach 11cm! They can live for up to 60 years!

A termite queen (The huge one), king (The medium one), worker (One at the bottom) and nymph (By the queen’s head).

You can see that the Queen grows so large that she cant even move. She is trapped for her whole life. I mean look, her legs can barely reach the ground. This immense size means she can be filled with reproductive organs. The largest queens can lay up to 40,000 eggs a day! Mental.

Ants and termites are often confused in 2 ways: Flying ants and termites and worker ants and termites. Luckily thy are very easy to tell apart if you know what you are looking for. As we have covered before, ants are hymenopterans. They have a thin waist called a petiole. This is very obvious when you look at ants and termites, even in the picture below.

Workers and alate ants (Right) and termites (Left).

The waists are very obvious as you can see. Another rule of thumb I follow is that Ants have elbowed antennae. This is a rough way of telling if an insect is an ant or not. This is especially true when comparing to wasps and termites. Flying ants and termites both have 2 pairs of wings. However, ants have smaller hind wings. With termites, all of the wings are the same.

Both ants and termites are amazing animals and should not just be used to define the other. If you want some more termite related posts, leave a comment below and like this post. I hope you now know some of the differences between ants and termites. if you are ever unsure, come back and compare them to the examples in this post. Thank you for reading,

Alex.

Glossary

Metamorphosis: Changing their physical structure.

Nymph: The immature form of an insect.

References

Horwood, M.A.; Eldridge, R.H. (2005). Termites in New South Wales Part 1. Termite biology (PDF) (Technical report). Forest Resources Research. ISSN 0155-7548. 96-38.

Kaib, M., Hacker, M. and Brandl, R., 2001. Egg-laying in monogynous and polygynous colonies of the termite Macrotermes michaelseni (Isoptera, Macrotermitidae). Insectes sociaux48(3), pp.231-237.

Misof, B., Liu, S., Meusemann, K., Peters, R.S., Donath, A., Mayer, C., Frandsen, P.B., Ware, J., Flouri, T., Beutel, R.G. and Niehuis, O., 2014. Phylogenomics resolves the timing and pattern of insect evolution. Science346(6210), pp.763-767.

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4 thoughts on “Ant or Termite?

  1. Always wondered what interactions between ant and termite colonies are like. I’ve seen videos of standoffs between lines of soldiers protecting their worker trails, but I’ll admit: all my knowledge on the subject comes from that 90’s film Antz hahahaha

    Like

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