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How Are Termites Different From Other Social Insects?

January 17th, 2018

How Are Termites Different From Other Social Insects?

Although termites are social insects like bees, ants, and wasps, termites are not closely related to other social insects. All insects that live in social groups belong to the insect order known as Hymenoptera, except for termites. The Hymenoptera order includes bees and ants, but termites belong to an order all their own. This order is referred to as Isoptera. Surprisingly, termites are more closely related to cockroaches than any type of social insect. The social order of termites appeared on earth long before other forms of social insects. Although termites are not closely related to other social insects, there are still many similarities between Hymenoptera and Isoptera insects.

Unlike termites, social insects such as bees, ants and wasps hatch from eggs as larva before going through a sudden metamorphosis that is similar to how a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. This metamorphosis brings bees, ants and wasps into full adulthood in just one step. Termite metamorphosis is more gradual, and is similar to the development of roaches, grasshoppers and many other insects. Termites pass through developmental stages by moulting. With each moult, a termite’s exoskeleton is discarded and a new stage of maturation is reached. However, termites are unique in that workers and soldiers do not moult beyond the juvenile stage. This is why termite workers and soldiers lack sexual organs as well as eyes. Eye development among individual termites can vary somewhat, but eyesight is, at the very least, weak. This lack of eyesight makes sense given the darkness of termite habitats. Termites do not require eyesight to function. Sexual organs are not needed since workers and soldiers do not exist for fulfilling reproductive duties.

Termites are also the only social insects that have kings in their colonies. Other social insects like bees, ants and wasps live in colonies that contain only a queen. These queens mate only once and store sperm for the duration of their lives. Termite bodies are also notably less durable than the bodies of other social insects. This may be due to the protection that termite mounds and underground nests offer termites. Other social insects live in nests that are not as well protected against predators. Beehives, for example, are well exposed to predators, which means individual bees must have durable bodies for defending themselves against predatory attacks. The stunted growth of termites makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint.

Have you ever heard of a social species of insect that was not a termite, bee, ant or wasp?

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