What are termites?
Termites are incredible, small insects that have mastered cooperation allowing
them to achieve great things, such as building skyscrapers, hollowing huge trees,
moving amazing amounts of soil and of course, eating your house.
Most people are comfortable that they know what an ant is, but hardly anyone
seems sure they know what makes a termite a termite. Termites are not ants and
certainly not white ants. That's a really sloppy term, please don't use it. They are
most closely related to the cockroaches, and so are very different to ants.
Ants share their insect order with bees and wasps (the Hymenoptera). Termites
belong to their own insect order (the Isoptera) and have several clear and
obvious differences which make it fairly simple to tell them from apart:
Color most termites are typically whitish, often almost clear--you can usually see
the food in their gut, but the winged ones are usually much darker (as above)
many possible colours, usually black or dark red or brown
Shape six-legged grub, fairly short legs six-legged grub with narrow waist, legs
Wings if present, 4, twice as long as body, all roughly the same size and shape,
deciduous. If winged, the body is darker if present, 4, about the same length as
body, rear wings obviously smaller, wings retained. Winged ants are typically
about the same colour.
Head no eyes unless winged form usually obvious eyes
Antennae like a string of pearls definitely elbowed, with longer segments
Body soft harder, tougher
Termites belong to the Order Isoptera:
(Pronounced Eye-sop-terr-a) , the termites, from the Greek, Iso meaning equal
and pteron, meaning wing. The name refers to the wings of the reproductive
caste, which isn't very helpful as most termites are plain workers that never get to
grow wings. There are two pairs of wings, with the front pair the same size as the
hind pair. The name termite comes from the Latin word for woodworm.
Small, pale, soft-bodied social insects living in a nest or colony system. Primarily
cellulose feeding. Divided into castes, the most numerous caste are relatively
undifferentiated and perform much of the colony work, there is a specialised
soldier caste with head and jaw structures differentiated with stronger features
and often mouthparts more suited to defence than feeding. The reproductive
caste, known as alates (winged ones) are produced when nymphs mature to
develop wings and a generally darker colouring. Metamorphosis is gradual (no
Head rounded, eyes generally absent except in the reproductive caste, antennae
beaded, wings absent except in reproductive caste. Chewing mouthparts. Wings
deciduous, shed shortly after nuptial flight through breakage at a suture near
point of attachment (hence de-alate), leaving small scales which persist.
Termites are weak fliers, flights occur only under favourable conditions: nearly still
air, high humidity and with falling barometric pressure indicating a likelihood of
following rain. No constriction of the abdomen (as in ants, bees and wasps).
Here's a similar description at the University of Delaware
Termites also behave in ways that makes them easy to identify. For a start,
nearly every type live completely in the dark (except when building or when the
winged ones are flying), so you usually only see them when something is broken
or open. Once exposed, they will try to follow their scent trails home. If these are
broken they just wander around looking lost or squeeze into any gap they can find.
Most species of termites have what is called a soldier caste. These grow strong
heads, often much darker than those of the other termites. Very often, these
strong heads also have big jaws. If you can find some of these among you
termites, it makes the job of identifying the species much easier. Soldiers may
be rare, only a few percent of the population, so look carefully.
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