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.
AntAsk ants v termites 1.gif

(http://www.daff.gov.au/aqis/avm/vessels/fact-sheets/termite)


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).

AntAsk ants v termites 2.jpg
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.

Thumbnail image for AntAsk ants v termites 3.jpg

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

Dear Mary, this is a great question!

Almost every ant you ever encounter is female! In ants, all individuals that perform work for the colony are females. We usually refer to these ants as "workers", but in some ant colonies that have different roles, specific workers are sometimes referred to as "soldiers" or "nurses". Regardless of the name and task of these ants, they are all female. The sexuals or reproductives in ants are called "alates". Females are called queens or gynes, while males are usually just called males. In the case of male alates, their only function is to reproduce. They usually stay in their home colony until they are fully developed and then they fly away to mate. Almost all male and female alates have wings and often they mate in the air on nuptial flights. Males usually only mate once and then they die--having fulfilled their purpose in life. The female queens, on contrary, try to found a new colony after mating with one or several males. They then shed their wings and find a suitable place to start a new nest.

When you see a winged individual, you can recognize males based on their small head and their long antennae. Males usually have more antennal segments than the females. When you see a wingless individual, queens have already removed their wings are larger in size than the workers, have a wider thorax due to the wing muscles and they show wing scars. Ant colonies or nests are almost entirely made up of females. So the next time you see an ant without wings, you will know it is female.

 

4casts2.jpg


In this picture, we see (A) a male, (B) a winged young queen, (C) queen after shedding her wings, and (D) a worker of the acacia-ant Pseudomyrmex peperi. The male has long antennae and a small head with large eyes. The winged young queen can be recognized on base of her wings and at the same time shorter antennae. The wingless queen has no wings, but you can still see wing scares. The gaster (rear end) of most egg-laying queens becomes distended with eggs, a state that is called "physogastric". The queen is larger in size than the workers. The worker has short antennae, no wings and no wing scars.


- Steffi Kautz & the AntAsk Team

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Velvet ants are wasps that sometimes look like ants.  Velvet ants are often covered with hairs giving them a velvet-like appearance. They are usually black or brown, but sometimes they can have eye-catching coloration such as red, yellow or orange. Sizes can can range from 6-30 mm (0.25-1.5 in.). Both velvet ants and true ants are in the order Hymenoptera, (which also includes bees and other wasps), but velvet ants are in their own family, the Mutillidae, whereas all true ants belong to the family Formicidae. 

In temperate regions, velvet ants (hereafter, mutillids) are usually easy to tell apart from true ants because they are so hairy.  Although some tropical ants can be quite hairy, like this Echinopla from Borneo, this Calomyrmex and this Polyrhachis, both from Australia, very few ants are as large and hairy as mutillids.  Another important difference between ants and mutillids is that ants usually have a very long first antennal segment, followed by 3-12 very short segments (picture).  This antennal morphology is called "elbowed," or "geniculate." Mutillids do have a slightly elongate first antennal segment, but it never extends much beyond their face. 

There are approximately 6000 species in the Mutillidae. Female mutillids are wingless and have an ant-like appearance, whereas males have wings. They often produce sound by rubbing body parts together, or stridulation. They have a very painful sting, which is why they are sometimes referred to as "cow-killers". The sting is usually more painful than a bee sting. However, as velvet ants are solitary insects, the attack of multiple individuals is rare.  

Mutillid ecology

Little is known about mutillid ecology. From the species that have been studied, we know that they are often parasites of ground-nesting bees and wasps, like bumble bees. Mutillid larvae are usually external parasitoids of their host species. This means that the female mutillid wasp lays an egg close to a pupa and does not place it inside the pupa. A review on mutillids as parasites of social insects is given by Brothers et al. (2000). According to "Brothers' rule" (Brothers 2000), "larvae of the mutillid wasps are always ectoparasites of host stages which are enclosed in some sort of package (cell, cocoon, puparium, ootheca) and which are not actively feeding". Most commonly, host species are from the groups of wasps, bees (Hymenoptera), flies (Diptera), beetles (Coleoptera) (Brothers et al. 2000 and references therein).

Some mutillid wasps mimic ants. One species, Pappognatha myrmiciformis, mimics the ant Camponotus sericeiventris as described by Wheeler (1983). The purpose of this mimicry is not clear. As mutillids possess a very painful sting and have a very hard exoskeleton, this mimicry probably does not serve a protective function. Wheeler (1983) hypothesizes that the resemblance might enable females to enter the nest of C. sericeiventris and parasitize the brood. However, Brothers et al. (2000) find it more likely that the larvae of the parasitoid feed on myrmecophilic (ant loving) beetles that live within the ant colonies.


Brothers DJ, Tschuch G, and Burger F  (2000)  Associations of mutillid wasps (Hymenoptera, Mutillidae) with eusocial insects. Insect. Soc. 47: 201-211.

Wheeler GC (1983)  A mutillid mimic of an ant (Hymenoptera: Mitillidae and Formicidae).  Entomol. News 94: 143-144.


Dasymutilla gloriosa.jpg

Dasymutilla gloriosa - Thistledown Velvet Ant. California, USA. Photo by Alex Wild (www.alexanderwild.com)


Sphaeropthalma arota.jpg

Sphaeropthalma arota - nocturnal velvet ant. California, USA. Photo by Alex Wild (www.alexanderwild.com)


- The AntAsk Team

What is AntAsk?


AntAsk is AntWeb's new feature to provide a platform for questions on ants from the public. Questions from the public will be vetted and organized by a team of ant experts from around the world. AntAsk will be organized as a blog based on an "Ask the Expert" model with a system of "tagging" entries into categories. An intuitive search interface and list of tags/keywords allows users to quickly obtaining specific information. If you have any questions about ant identification, care, diversity, or anything else ant related, please don't hesitate to ask. If you have a question or would like to join our team of experts, contact us at askantweb@calacademy.org.

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- The AntAsk Team

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