Termites & Flying Ants: The Facts

Termites are eusocial insects that are classified at the taxonomic rank of infraorder Isoptera, or as epifamily Termitoidae within the cockroach order Blattodea. Termites were once classified in a separate order from cockroaches, but recent phylogenetic studies indicate that they evolved from close ancestors of cockroaches during the Jurassic or Triassic.

However, the first termites possibly emerged during the Permian or even the Carboniferous. About 3,106 species are currently described, with a few hundred more left to be described. Although these insects are often called white ants, they are not ants.

Termites have a strict caste system, which consists of a hierarchy of worker termites, soldiers, winged termites or reproductive, a queen termite, and a king termite. The castes differ in form, and in the role which they each play within the greater colony. The number of individuals within each caste is regulated chemically and is dictated by the needs of the colony.

Subterranean termites are often, however erroneously, referred to as ‘white ants’, but there are several differences between ants and termites. The most defining difference between termites and ants is the shape of their bodies. Ants have a constriction between the thorax and abdomen (much like that of a wasp), whereas termites have a uniformly broad body without any constrictions.

Termites feed on cellulose, which is most often found in materials such as wood, bark, leaves, fungi and grass.

In Gauteng, the most common type of termite is the subterranean termite. Subterranean termites within a dwelling are often difficult to detect until it’s too late. They cause most damage to wooden skirting boards, wooden floors, door frames and furniture.

The manner in which the termites damage wood is rather interesting as the worker termites are in search of the cellulose content within the wood and hence will remove all palatable wood from the inside of the above-mentioned wooden structures, and damage is often only noticed once the structure has been completely hollowed out. Subterranean termites will destroy any unprotected wooden structures, and timber, if given the opportunity. Common indications of termite activity are mud-like clusters on walls, skirting boards, door frames and the like or over impenetrable foundations to provide lines between the nest and their food source.

During their immature stages, termites are able to change from one caste type to another, allowing the colony to change the proportion of different caste members as, and when, the need arises.

Flying Ants

Subterranean termites have “flying termite” or “winged reproductive” castes. These winged termites are new kings and queens attempting to establish a new colony. They may also be referred to as “swarmers” or “flying ants”. These are commonly seen flying around in their thousands after and during summer rains. Ant colonies also send swarmers, which have nearly the same appearance as termites but may be identified upon closer inspection.

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