What's the difference between an ant and a termite? (Eric, Sheboygan, WI, USA)

Dear Eric,

Thanks for your question - this is a common one that many people might be curious about.  Ants and termites share a number of remarkable similarities in their colonial lifestyle, but there are three key physical differences to tell them apart.

  1. Ants have elbowed antennae, where the first segment is much longer than the segments that follow. By contrast, termites have straight antennae that appear like a string of tiny beads.
  2. Ants also have a characteristically constricted "waist" while termites do not. In termites the body segments are much more broadly attached.
  3. Forewings of reproductive (queen and male) ants are larger than hindwings, while reproductive termites have two sets of wings of similar size and shape, often twice the length of their body.
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Both ants and termites live in colonies or nests where one or relatively few individuals reproduce while non-reproductive individuals cooperate to care for brood, maintain the nest, and defend the colony. These features - reproductive division of labor (only the queens lay eggs), overlapping generations (you have all ages in the nest), and cooperative brood care (all individuals care for the young, not just the queens) - are hallmarks of eusociality, a condition achieved in relatively few insects. Although all ants and termites are eusocial, both groups vary broadly in colony size and social sophistication. Mature colonies of certain species may contain fewer than 100 physically similar individuals, while colony membership can swell to several million individuals in other ant and termite species and include several morphologically and behaviorally specialized castes (e.g. soldiers, several classes of workers).

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Camponotus sansabaenus - worker ants vary in size, color, and body proportion. Photo by Alex Wild (www.alexanderwild.com).

Despite these similarities, ants and termites are not very closely related and developed social behavior independently. As such, there are several key distinctions between ants and termites in the details of social life. In colonies of ants, bees, and wasps, virtually all nestmates are sisters, and the nest is typically headed by one or a limited number of queens. Males are produced only at certain times of the year and serve as short-lived mobile reproductive machines, emerging from the nest to mate with virgin queens and then quickly die. Once mated, a queen founds her colony (sometimes with the aid of workers from her natal nest) and uses sperm stored from her first mating event for the rest of her life. By contrast, termite colonies are founded by a king and queen, which meet in a mating swarm and together select a nest site. The pair is monogamous and must periodically re-mate. Unlike the female-only colonies of ants, males are an integral part of a termite colony's workforce and may be workers, soldiers, or both, depending on the termite species.

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Prorhinotermes inopinatus worker and soldier termites in a rotting log.  Photo by Alex Wild (www.alexanderwild.com).

Complex social organization and large colony size has facilitated the success of many ants and termites, which are critical to ecosystem functioning around the world. Ants and termites are essential bioturbators, overturning and enriching soil by excavating tunnels and amassing nutrient-rich resources at nest sites. Ants also play a host of other roles, serving as predators, prey, and seed dispersers to a variety of organisms, while termites recycle otherwise inaccessible nutrients into the ecosystem by decomposing wood with the aid of gut bacteria or protists. Perhaps because of their ecological success, several ant and termite species are familiar household pests, including carpenter ants (Camponotus) and the Formosan subterranean termite (Coptotermes formosanus).

Whether ant or termite, social insects are a fascinating and important part of global biodiversity.

- Tim O'Connor & the AntAsk team

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