How to Tell the Difference Between Ants and Termites

In the spring, carpenter ants and termites both swarm in order to mate and reproduce. At first glance, the two may seem to be identical, but a closer look will reveal significant differences.

How do you tell the difference between an ant and a termite?

The termite

  • has no “waist,” rather its body is more rectangular without any narrowing in the center.
  • has straight, beaded antennae.
  • has four wings that are of equal size and shape. Its wings are also longer than its body.

The carpenter ant

  • has a very well-defined narrow, constricted waist.
  • has antennae that are bent or “elbowed.”
  • has four wings, with the back, hind wings shorter than its front, fore wings.

Termite and Ant Differences

Other differences between the termite and the carpenter ant are:

  • Ant workers are reddish or dark colored and are frequently seen in the open foraging for food. Termite workers are transparent, light or creamy white in color and avoid light. So termites are not often seen unless their nest is disturbed.
  • Although reproductives of both are winged, the wings of the termite fall off easily, so they can often be seen near the opening to the termite nesting site.
  • Termites eat the wood in which they nest. Carpenter ants merely dig into the wood to excavate their nests; they do not eat the wood.
  • Since carpenter ants do not eat the wood, they will push it out through openings of the galleries of their colonies, thus small piles of wood shavings or frass may be seen below holes.
  • The tunnels and galleries of the carpenter ants will be very smooth and finished; whereas termite galleries are rough and ragged, as they are filled with layers of soil and mud.
  • Carpenter ants seek out moist and damaged wood in which to excavate their nests; termites will chew right into sound wood.
  • A mud tube indicates the definite presence or previous presence of termites. These are tubes built on the outside of walls or between the soil and wood through which the termites travel.

Effective Control

Because carpenter ants and termites are so different, effective control measures are also different for each. For more information on control, see Control Carpenter Ants and Expert Recommendations for Termites. As these articles indicate, carpenter ants can often be controlled through the elimination of the conditions which attracted them, but a termite infestation will generally require professional control.

If you do have winged ant-like insects in your home or building, it is best to try to collect a sample of one for identification. This can then be used to compare with online photos and graphics (from reliable sources, such as universities, extension services, or reliable pest control company websites) or show to an entomologist or to a pest control professional for professional identification and treatment.

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