Looking at a termite, which insects would you assume are its closest relatives? Most people would probably think of the ant. After all, termites look a lot like ants, with their segmented bodies and antennae. However, while ants and termites are insects, that’s about as close as their relationship gets. Ants are actually much more closely related to wasps and bees than they are to termites. And termites? Well, their closest relatives are the cockroaches. They’re also related to mantises, although a little more distantly.
This might surprise you, since termites, cockroaches, and mantises seem very different. It all comes down to scientific classification, though, and facts that researchers have recently learned about termite evolution. Remember, in school, when you were made to memorize the classification system? As most of us learned, the order of classification goes Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. There’s actually more to it than that, with prefixes of super and sub added to denote classifications between those main categories. For example, Superorders are between Class and Order, and Suborders are between Order and Family. Did you get all that? You’ll need to know those facts for this next part.
Cockroaches, termites, mantises, and even ants are all in the same Kingdom (Animal), Phylum (Arthropoda), and Class (Insecta). After that, ants go their own way, as members of the Order Hymenoptera, together with the bees, wasps, and sawflies. Cockroaches, termites, and mantises continue along together into the Superorder Dictyoptera. While the three types of insects may seem very different, they do have similarities. They’ve all got enlarged subgenital plates, a perforated cephalic tentorium, and a toothed proventriculus, and they all produce oothecae. What does that mean in common English?
- Subgenital plates are large protective plates under the genitals, and they allow the females to carry eggs on her their abdomens.
- The cephalic tentorium is a hard part protecting the insects’ heads and in Dictyoptera, this body part has tiny holes in it.
- A toothed proventriculus just means they have mouth parts that can chew.
- Oothecae is a substance that allows them to create protective egg sacs.
After we go further, past the Superorder and into the Order, things start to get interesting. The classification system has existed since the 18th century and termites used to have their own Order: Isoptera. New research, however, caused scientists to move them over to the Order Blattodea, with cockroaches.
Why the shift? Molecular and genetic evidence discovered over the years since 2007 indicates that termites actually evolved from within the cockroach lineage. So, technically, termites are a type of cockroach! They certainly look different, with termites being pale, soft-bodied insects and cockroaches being darker colored, with stiff shells and segmented bodies. Their social organization is different, too. Termites have a highly developed caste system, with two reproductive members of the colony being the king and queen, and numerous sterile workers and soldiers doing the necessary work of the colony. Cockroaches, by contrast, are not colonial, and all adult cockroaches are capable of breeding. Let’s take a more in-depth look at termites and cockroaches.
There are over 4,000 species of cockroach. They’re found on every continent, and they live in a large range of habitats. Some of them live in leaf litter, some in rotting wood, some in thick vegetation, some in caves, some in trees, and some cockroaches even live in water. It may surprise you to learn that only a small number of cockroach species live in close proximity to humans. Cockroaches are typically omnivores or detritivores, and some have symbionts in their guts to help them digest cellulose.
Termites also have these gut-boosting symbionts, without which they’d be unable to eat wood. There are more than 3,000 species of termites, found on every continent except Antarctica. Africa is home to the greatest diversity of termites and there are relatively few species in Europe and North America. Termites, like cockroaches, are detrivores but many species eat wood.
Termites stay out of sight as much as possible, to protect their soft bodies. Cockroaches are typically out of sight too, because they’re nocturnal and only forage at night. Termites are eusocial creatures that live in large colonies and while cockroaches are also social, they do not live in colonies. They do sometimes show a predisposition towards aggregation, and some species engage in parental care of their offspring. Interestingly, juvenile cockroaches are more likely to aggregate than adults, who are often aggressively competitive. There are other behaviors that juvenile cockroaches engage in that adults do not, like grooming each other, which is also common among termites. Both termites and cockroaches eat fecal pellets, enjoy warm and humid spaces, burrow, manipulate substrate, recognize their family members, and engage in cannibalism. These behaviors, along with a few others like food sharing, vibrational communication, trail following, and certain mating behaviors, are all thought to have been inherited from a common ancestor. So, while on the surface termites and cockroaches don’t seem to have much in common, when scientists dig deeper into researching these insects, they continue to discover similarities that affirm their familial connection.
Scientists keep learning new information about termites but if you have them in your house, you probably just want information on how to get rid of them. That’s where we come in! At MightyMite Termite Services, we’ve earned a reputation as experts in California termite control. We perform termite inspections to ensure that your home is free of termites and work hard to help you keep it that way, using treatments that are naturally derived and have a low impact on the environment. We diagnose and treat infestations with the most effective methods and unmatched warranties, solving your termite problems the first time, with an industry best “no call-back rate.” That, combined with our experience, technology, and highly trained professional staff, makes us the leading extermination company in the Bay Area. We understand that your home is your most important investment, so we work hard to provide excellent service, utilizing best practices to solve our customers’ termite problems in Northern California. For more information, call us today at 408.335.7053, email Info@mightymitetermite.com, or contact us through our website.