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Guest Questions – The Difference Between Ants and Termites

11 Feb 2020 | By Author Thornybush | Wildlife

One of the joys of a South African Safari is discovering a new appreciation for the little things in nature. Guests begin to see insects in a new light and one of the questions we answer often concerns two common household pests.

The Difference Between Ants and Termites

Both these tiny animals have an important role to play in nature. Aspects of their lifestyle which cause irritation and distress in suburbia are welcomed in the bush.

Eat and Be Eaten

Ants clean up after everybody, eating tiny particles of organic matter that other animals are unaware of. The burrowing behaviour of ants turns and aerates the soil and they help in plant propagation by dispersing seeds during foraging.

Similarly, termites cause upheaval in the surface of the soil, and their wood-gnawing ways help to decompose rotting wood faster and turn it into valuable compost.

Both ants and termites are a favourite meal of many species of insects, reptiles, birds and even larger mammals. The aardvark is reliant on termites for most of its nutrition and highly specialised for the task.

Different Approaches to the Same Task

Despite the similarity in the result, ants and termites go about their duties in different ways.

Ants build their nests underground or among fallen leaves while termites burrow into wood. During their excavations, carpenter ants simply push the wood chips aside, while termites eat them.

One species of termites build nature’s equivalent of the apartment block out of soil. Termite mounds are a common sight in well drained areas around the Thornybush Private Nature Reserve.

Social Life

Their behavioural differences don’t end there either. While both live in colonies dominated by a queen, ants are capable of far more sophisticated behaviour than termites. Different species all have their quirks.

Some ants keep aphids and other ‘livestock’ such as caterpillars, some tend ‘crops’ of fungi and weaver ants can craft nests out of leaves.

Termites lack the digestive enzymes needed to process their food, so they cultivate fungal gardens within their very large mounds. These mounds are like greenhouses, optimising the conditions needed for fungal growth. The inside of the mound is warm, moist and dark – conditions loved by most fungi. The large holes sometimes seen in the top of the mound are in fact ventilation shafts used to exchange gases and stabilise the temperature inside the colony.

Apart from the soldiers and workers, termite society has a third class known as reproductives. These are the winged version of termites that are sometimes seen in swarms above the ground. This elite caste gets to go out into the world and create their own colonies.

Most ants do not fly, and they perform gender-specific roles within the colony. The male ant’s0000000 only function is to mate with the queen so that she can lay thousands of eggs. After that they die, leaving all the work to the female ants of the colony.

The queen outlives her subjects for many years but before she passes on, she will lay a batch of eggs that hatch into winged male and female ants which fly off to create a new colony.

Very large ant colonies can span kilometres underground and have several queens. The largest one recorded was home to 307 million ants with 1 million queen ants.

Physical Differences

The easiest way to tell the difference between an ant and a termite is by their colouring. Most ants are black or brown, while termites are pale and almost translucent.

Termites have straight antennas and abdomens, while ants’ have kinked antennae and bodies which appear segmented.

It’s the small things that count. Discover these and more interesting facts when you visit Thornybush on your South African safari.