Friday, September 5, 2014

Ants vs Termites: the Soul of the White Ant

Ever since Eugene Marais wrote ‘The Soul of the White Ant’, public perception has lumped ants and termites together as sharing some kind of commonality. Overseas scientists did not help, either. Marais preferred to write in Afrikaans and his work was translated into various international languages either late in his life or after his death. His book “Soul of the White Ant” was plagiarised by Nobel laureate Maurice Maeterlinck, who published “The Life of the White Ant”
in 1926, falsely claiming many of Marais’ revolutionary ideas as his own. Maeterlinck was able to do this because he was Belgian and, though his mother tongue was French, he was fluent in Dutch, from which Afrikaans was derived. It was common at the time for worthy articles published in Afrikaans to be reproduced in Flemish and Dutch magazines and journals.
Marais contemplated legal action against Maeterlinck but gave up the idea in the face of the costs and logistics involved. He needn’t have bothered: Maeterlinck chose a bad title to plagiarise, leaving his reputation in tatters on two counts. Ants and termites are both insects, but that’s about where it ends. Lumping them together is a bit worse than putting golden moles and baboons into the same mammalian nest.
So what’s different? Termites, like ants, live in large colonies in the earth or in wood. The individual workers are generally sterile, and the queen lays all the eggs. Their winged reproductives go on nuptial flights, when they're often known as ‘flying ants’. Termites sometimes have major and minor workers, too, but that's where it ends. Whereas ants [and bees] are descended from wasps, termites have their roots in cockroaches, and almost everything else about them differs from ants – see chart below.


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