How to Tell the Difference Between Termites and Ants

How do you tell the difference between termites and ants? Do you believe you have ants or termites munching on your home’s wood frame?

Maybe you noticed a small, dark-colored, and swift insect dash across from your view, and then you notice another one and follow it across the room.

Do you now uncover an entire colony of these insects living in your house for free?

Colony of termites to show difference between ants and termites
Colony of termites. Courtesy of Jimmy Chan

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If this happened to you, you’ll have to determine what the insects are before you can begin to deal with them. You think they’re ants or termites, but you’re not sure which?

It’s a good idea to learn a little bit more about your new housemates, given that ants and termites are two separate species of insects that can do different forms of damage in your home.

Ants eating
Ants eating. Courtesy of Petr Ganaj

You should figure out which insect is causing your problem. Both can cause damage to your home, but the key to resolving your issue is proper identification of the culprits.

Two Harmful Insects

Carpenter ants and termites have a lot in common, and they’re both known for destroying wood in homes.

Termites are nearly the same size as the various species of giant ants that belong to the carpenter ant group, with the exception of wing size during reproduction.

Like carpenter ants, termites burrow into wood, making them enemies of your home’s wood frame. Because both carpenter ants and termites swarm in the spring to mate, you may see these swarms and confuse them for one another.

How to tell the difference between ants and termites

Here are some of the key differences:

Physical differences between ants and termites

A closer examination of the insect in question usually reveals substantial physical distinctions that make distinguishing between a termite and a carpenter ant simple.

Use a magnifying glass to get a close look at the insect, or shine a strong light on it to see it with your naked eye.

Color

You’ve seen ants before, and you’re probably aware that they’re a dark color – either a deep red, brown, or black. Ant workers are frequently seen in the open foraging for food.

Termites, on the other hand, are transparent, light-colored, or creamy white in color. Termite workers avoid light and are rarely noticed unless their nest is disturbed.

Antennae

An insect’s antennae can say a lot about the insect, too. If you’re able to get up close enough to the insect to see its antennae, you’ll be able to have a clue as to which insect you’re dealing with.

A termite has straight, beaded antennae, while an ant’s antennae are bent or “elbowed.”

Body shape

Part of knowing the difference between ants and termite relies on the abdomen area. A termite’s abdomen doesn’t have a defined waist. Instead, its body is more rectangular, without any narrowing in the center.

In contrast, the ant has a very well-defined narrow, constricted waist and a more rectangular body.

Wings

Both the ant and the termite are winged insects, and each has four wings. The difference in their wing characteristic is one of the better means of determining the differences between ants and termites.

A termite’s four wings are of equal size and shape and its wings are much longer than its body.

On the contrary, the back, hind wings of the ant are shorter than the front forewings. Also, the ant’s wings do not appear unusually long or disproportionate to its body.

In addition, the termite’s wings are very fragile and fall off easily. The loose wings can often be seen near the opening of a termite nest.

If you happen to notice fallen wings in your home, this can sometimes be an indication that you have a termite infestation.

Behavioral Differences

Where do you find ants and termites?

Termites tend to avoid light, therefore unless you’re on a mission to find them outside, chances are you probably won’t see them.

On the other hand, ants aren’t afraid of being seen. You’ve probably seen them crawling around outside in broad daylight.

Diets

Another key difference between ants and termites is their diet. Ants are not picky about what they eat.

Ants feed on plants, animals, and any food waste or debris. You’ll often see them on your kitchen counters, especially when there’s food left out.

They’ll also be seen crawling around garbage cans and surrounding your pet food dishes placed on the floor.

On the other hand, termites generally feed on things that are rich in cellulose such as wood and paper. Therefore, instead of finding them near sources of human food, you’re more likely to spot them in wood, drywall, cardboard, insulation, and other stuff with that tasty cellulose.

Also, termites eat the wood in which they nest. Ants do not. Ants merely dig into the wood to excavate their nests. Instead of eating the wood, the ants push it out through openings of the galleries of their colonies.

So, If you notice small heaps of wood shavings or insect waste below the holes, you may have an ant infestation.

Ants will excavate their nests in moist, damaged wood while termites will gnaw right through healthy wood.

Presence of mud tubes

Lastly, do you see any visible mud tubes? A mud tube suggests the definite presence of termites now or the presence of termites in the past.

Termite tunnels are tubes developed on the outside of walls or between earth and wood that serve as routes for the termites.

How to get rid of ants and termites

Because ants and termites are very different, effective control measures are also different for each of them. Ants can often be controlled by eliminating the conditions which attracted them. However, a termite infestation will generally require professional pest control.

If you suspect that you’re dealing with fire ants or carpenter ants you should consider getting a professional to assess the situation and advise you accordingly. 

If you notice winged or flying ant-like insects in your home, try to collect samples to help you identify them. You can compare the samples you collected to online photographs and graphics.

You may also show them to a pest control professional for identification and treatment recommendations.

Controlling either of these insects will include utilizing a multi-pronged approach involving the use of several chemicals to kill current insects and deter additional infection.

It will also be necessary to remove and replace structural wood that has been damaged by the insects. These insects can wreak havoc on your home’s structure over time if left untreated.

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