Termites may be called “white ants”, but actually, termites can also be black in color. Termites are found in a wide range of colors depending on species. There are nearly 3000 species of termites in the world, but scientists cannot be sure of the actual figure, because most species are found in the tropics and in tropical rainforests, where there may be yet undiscovered species occurring. Among lay people, termite identification can be a slight problem, as they are often confused with ants.
Termites belong to the order Isoptera and are closely related to cockroaches. In fact, scientists now regard termites as highly socialized and specialized wood eating cockroaches. I’ve also seen cockroaches pouncing on and devouring termite alates (flying reproductive termites), so I guess there is no love lost between termites and their cousins.
Ants are the greatest enemies of termites; in fact they are mortal enemies. But that does not prevent ants from being confused with termites time and again. In fact, there is a lot of confusion and ignorance concerning termites both on the internet, and offline. I cannot count the number of times I’ve seen websites show pictures of termites when they are in fact, ants, and vice versa.
The easiest way to identify termites is by looking at the waist. Ants have a well defined head, middle body, and abdomen. As for termites, their abdomen is joined to their head in a more or less continuous manner. Termites have a “soft” appearance generally, while ants have a “hard” appearance. Check this page for a more indepth look at what do termites look like.
Although many termites eat wood, only some of them are a threat to buildings or wooden structures. Formosan termites (Coptotermes formosanus) for example, are some of the most destructive wood eating termites known. But there are many species of termites that are not interested in the wood used in man-made structures, and only feed on humus, dead leaves, small twigs, and other decaying plant matter.
Some termites cannot even fully digest wood, and some species of the Macrotermitinae family need to construct mounds and grow fungus gardens within them (which they feed on). Some species are specialist lichen feeders and are not interested in wood. So remember, not all termites are pests. The wood eating termites are mostly subterranean in habit and may have large colonies deep underground, from which they fan out to “attack” wooden beams and structures, or even accessible cardboard or paper objects.
Termites are one of the oldest types of insects on earth, having existed on earth for hundreds of millions of years; it is estimated they emerged during the Jurassic period. The most primitive termite is believed to be the Giant Northern Termite of northern Australia, although most termites are basically unchanged in morphology even if you compare them to fossilized specimens millions of years old. Most termites are delicate creatures, avoiding light, living in total darkness; and they have lived this way for a very long time.