Termites or Beaver Ants?

Before today, I knew literally nothing about termites except that they eat wood and build giant castles (I’ll come back to that later). I didn’t even know what they look like; I’ve only ever seen them in cartoons in which they didn’t even have the right number of appendages.

Well, feast your eyes, everyone. This is what termites look like:

Courtesy of Aleksey Gnilenkov on Flickr

If I’m being honest, they kinda look like those helicopter seeds that fall off of maple trees slowly metamorphizing into ants. But, since “metamorphizing seed-ants” doesn’t have a great ring to it, I’m going to call them beaver ants instead. Because beavers also eat wood. I mean they at least chew on wood, they eat the bark off and stuff…

Okay, whatever, beavers don’t actually eat the wood, but you get the point.

Although ants belong to the order Hymenoptera and termites are members of Blattodea, these two insects do share some similarities. That said, I feel like I use ants and lobsters as comparison points for other arthropods a lot, but lobsters are basically The ArthroBlogger’s mascot at this point and, well, I like ants. If you’re reading a bug blog you probably like ants too, so we’re going to talk about ants again.

Termites and ants both have very similar colony breakdowns: each colony has a queen who is larger than all the other colony members and is responsible for laying eggs. In addition, both ants and termites might be either workers or soldiers. Workers in ant and termite colonies keep the colony clean and stocked with food, and also take care of the colony’s young. In fact, both ant and termite workers are adept agriculturalists: while ants are known to herd aphids and other insects for their honeydew, termites cultivate fungi that can convert their food into more nutritious forms (I knew wood couldn’t be all that special on its own). Soldier ants and termites are often bigger than the workers and are in charge of protecting the colony from predators and other threats. Both ant and termite colonies can also send out flying swarmers to start new colonies of their own.

Ants and termites not only share similar colony roles, but the physical structure of both insect kingdoms are a sight to behold (unless you have a termite infestation, then you’d probably rather not behold them). While most ants build impressive labyrinths underground, some termites construct massive, chimney-like mounds of dirt that can reach up to 30 feet in the air! Keep in mind your average termite is less than an inch long. While the termite colony itself is actually located underground, the mounds circulate air by cycling oxygen and carbon dioxide in and out of the colony as the mound warms and cools throughout the day.

A massive termite mound photographed by librarianidol on Flickr. Fortunately, these are not the kinds of termite colonies that develop in your house – that could be an issue.

Apparently the ants aren’t too happy with the termite’s massive mounds making their ant hills look like puny piles of dirt (which, to be fair, they are). In fact, ants and termites are sworn enemies known for their battle-to-the-death-on-sight relationship. Unfortunately, siding with the termites means rooting for the underdogs: while termites are bigger than ants, that’s really their only advantage during a colony invasion. Ant invaders typically outnumber their termite foes and are much more combative. If the termites can seal off all the entrances leading to their queen’s chamber before the ants get in, then the colony lives to fight another day. However, if the ants capture the queen and carry her off to be eaten, then the colony will soon die off no matter how many other termites survive.

Just because they’re divided into groups like “workers” and “soldiers” doesn’t mean that termites are mindless drones bent on doing their jobs and nothing more. In fact, termites are quite social individuals that groom each other frequently to keep the colony clean and healthy. Additionally, since soldiers and swarmers are unable to eat on their own, worker termites take the time to feed their friends mother bird style – it may be gross, but at least it keeps everyone’s bellies full.

Speaking of eating, why do termites eat wood? The answer is that they’re actually after cellulose, which all you biology students will recognize as an important polysaccharide found in the cell walls of plants. Unfortunately, termites that have invaded your home may also burrow through the nonorganic substances standing between them and their cellulose dinner, such as furniture coverings and insulation. While difficult to spot, one common sign of a termite infestation other than seeing the insects themselves is the presence of mud tubes in cracks or around pipes in your home. You can also tap on wooden baseboards and windowsill to make sure they haven’t been hollowed out.

I’ll bring jumping spiders into my home and tolerate the presence of stinkbugs, but I draw the line at arthropods that eat my stuff. The desk I type these posts on is made of wood, and I’ve been told it’s bad for my posture to type on the floor. Sorry, termites – you’re free to eat the stumps in the backyard, but nobody messes with my writing space. Or my spine. They’re both kind of important to me.

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