Monday, January 17, 2011

Insects - Ants or Termites

Sometimes after a highveld-thunderstorm, I was amazed to see our house invaded by what until now, I assumed were flying ants. But after some "research" I reached the following conclusion: this "model specimen", which once landed on our bed, "proves" that it's a flying termite!

To determine if it's a flying ant or termite, the following are distinguishing, anatomical characteristics: although both kinds of insects "possess" 2 pairs of wings ONLY during the mating, reproducing & forming of new colonies, their wings are dissimilar. A termite's wings are equally "long", in contrast to an ant's, whose back wings are much shorter.

Also: an ant's body has 3 distinct segments - the head, thorax (= middle segment, which also "bears" the legs & wings) & abdomen. In contrast a termite has only 2 segments - a head & thorax, which also look more like 1 piece or as if this insect has a "fat waist".

Finally there's one more distinctive difference between flying ants & flying termites: their antennae. An ant's is curved/bend inwards & "topped" by a ball (also called a "club"). However a termite's antennae gently point outwards & are "beaded" [clearly visible on this photo if you click on it to enlage].

When before I posted photos of what I then incorrectly called a flying ant, I also mentioned that after mating, a male winged ant dies - whilst the female dispenses with her wings before creating a new colony. In contrast & amongst flying termites, the males & females travel together to another place/form a new colony. So why did this termite shed its wings after an amazing "performance"? Do flying termites sometimes "loose direction" & then die instead of becoming "kings" & "queens" (as well as parents) of a new colony?

This specimen on our bed certainly had the appearance of a "little old person" trudging off & feeling defeated. Unfortunately I never "recorded" what happened to it afterwards - at the time, I was only fascinated by the spectacular part of the performance. All I know for sure that like my "research-efforts" indicate, the wings of a termite are easily "knocked off" & then lie scattered around.

Termites build & live in amazing "termitaria" (= mounds - only "small", visible part above ground of a much larger "whole"), which are said to be the oldest, organised social communities on earth - "marvels" of engineering, housing millions of inhabitants in air-conditioned, humidified comfort.

Another termite mound BUT (more or less) at the same location & 6 years later - with the "twin" Omatako mountains (in central Namibia) in the background.

A termite or an ant nest? The "controversy" starts again = I'm not sure! Although the nest resembles a "dirt clod", I tend to photograph whatever "catches my eye", & I certainly do know that some ants are arboreal (= living in treetops) - but that could also be the case with termites. Ants & termites aren't related, & whilst termites exist in their present form long before more advanced insects such as ants & bees (as well as humans) "appeared on the scene", ants are the termites' worst enemy.

Like all insects, ants have 6 legs, & each leg has 3 joints. However ants are the most highly developed of all insects - like termites, they live in perfectly organised "states" & have evolved many forms of food collection. Also most unusual for animals is the fact that ants "indulge" in a form of slavery, military campaigns & animal husbandry.

Did you know that an ant brain has about 250 000 brain cells, in comparison to a human brain, which has 10 million brain cells? So a colony of 40 000 ants has collectively the same size brain as a human!

Is this a matter of moving nest (from cool or wet conditions to a warmer environment) OR raiding a nest? On the one hand ants can lift 20 times their own weight, so carrying their own eggs/larvae/pupae isn't a difficult job. On the other hand, Slave-Maker ants raid the nests of other ants & steal their pupae. When these ants hatch, they work as slaves within the colony.

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