Winged Reproductive vs. Termite Alate
Article by Bruce Gow
When flying ants or termites are swarming they are oftentimes mistaken for the other species. Though they are similar in size they do have various identifiers that make it easier to distinguish between the two.
Winged Reproductive (flying ant)
- Elbowed antennae
- 2 pairs of wings, rear wings are smaller than front wings
- Wings have few well defined veins
- Pinched waist
- Long legs
Termite Alate (swarming termite)
- Straight antennae
- 2 pairs of wings the same size and shape
- More veins in their wings that are finer in shape and resemble lace
- Broad waist
- Short legs
Tips on Identification & Inspection
There are specific parts of the ant’s body hat are used consistently to distinguish between the different sub-families of ant. To be able to identify them as such you need a well developed understanding of the basics of ant anatomy.
Generally the identification process should be attempted on the workers of the colony and not the winged reproductives. To do so accurately you will require a means of magnification, usually a X40 magnifier is best. This will allow you to pick out these features:
There are a few important parts of the head that can be used as identifiers. Starting with the eyes which are supposed to be similar to those of flies that allow ants to see movement excellently. Their mandibles, attached to the head, are also very strong (often referred to as pincers) they are used to carry food, dig as well as call in defense. There is also a small pocket located right inside the mouth is used to carry food which can also be passed on to other ants.
All varieties of ants have antennae that are elbowed. Antennae serve as organs designed specifically for communication with other ants. They do so by releasing pheromones (a type of ‘message chemical’) to converse with each other. The other ant then picks up these chemical signals via their own antennae. The antennae are a very good point of reference as the number of antennal segments is specific to most genera of ants.
The scape is a term used to describe the first segment of the antenna and looks long and thing in form. The funiculus then comprises smaller segments of the antenna. Take note that when you’re counting the segments on the antenna the long scape is counted as the first segment.
Thorax / Trunk area:
You might hear this area referred to as the mesosoma and functions as the anchor to which all six of the ants legs are attached. The legs should also end in a sharp claw that assists ants with climbing and hanging onto things. There are ants that have either a single spine or multiple spines on the mesosoma which is useful when trying to identify an ant. You might find that on some ants there are grooves found on the thorax (this is referred to as sculpturing) – and serves as a unique identifying feature for the pavement ant.
Also known as the metasoma, it consists of the pedicel (petiole) as well as the gaster. Ants have a waist with a visible pinch between the thorax and abdomen, this is what is referred to as the pedicel.
Pedicel and petiole are often used interchangeably so either would refer to this area. It consists of the first of the 2 metasomal segments as part of the abdomen and you will find that they are often called ‘nodes’. An identifying feature of ants is often the number of nodes found – there is either one or two.
The gaster is a general and common feature among ants and thus is a fairly unremarkable identifier. Those that belong to the Formicinae sub-family (such as the carpenter ant) have a tiny circle shaped area of fuzz/hair that is found around the anus, right at the tip of the ‘gaster’ or post-abdomen segment. Wheres in the subfamily Myrmecinae this fringe of hairs is not found and instead you will find a stinger. The family Dolichoderinae has no sting and no circle of fuzz.
As with other species of insect ants have no lungs. The O2 enters into the ants body through minute holes (referred to as spiracles) that cover the body and the rejected CO2 exits by the same means. Ants also have no blood vessels, rather than blood vessels the ants organs are suspended within the oxygen carrying fluid known as haemolymph.
Slightly different than the heart of a mammal, the ants heart is a lengthy tube which serves as a pump for the haemolymph and transports the fluid from the head of the ant down to the gaster and back up to the head. Their nervous system only consists of a long nerve cord which runs similarly to the heart down the body of the ant and leading to the various parts of the body, similarly to a human spinal cord.
The Tarsi would refer to the distal and/or apical segments of each leg, a terminal one (the pre-tarsus) usually bears a claw. You can also use the colour of the tarsi as a useful feature to distinguish between species.