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The Difference Between Ants and Termites

How to Compare a Termite with a Flying Ant


Flying Ant

Flying Ant

Courtesy of Adam Tekoa
When there are swarms of flying insects inside or outside of a home, it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between a swarm of flying ants and a swarm of termites. Telling the difference is extremely important, because ants are generally just a nuisance, whereas termites can cause extensive, extremely expensive damage to a home.

Wingless Ants and Termites
Few people would confuse a wingless worker ant with a wingless worker termite. A worker termite is soft-bodied, light in color, and rarely seen in the open. A worker ant is dark with a hard shell, and often seen inside the home and out.

Sightings of the worker termite are uncommon because if exposed to our relatively dry atmosphere for even a short time, they will desiccate (dry out) and die. One sure way to confirm the presence of termites is the discovery of these “maggot-like” insects. I think they look like pieces of cooked white rice with legs.

Winged Ants and Termites
It’s harder to tell the difference between ants and termites in their winged reproductive stage, otherwise known as swarmers or alates. In this stage, termites and ants look very similar to each other.

Ant and termite swarmers both swarm in similar weather conditions and generally at the same time of year. They both have black bodies with wings. But beyond that, their physical differences can help you tell them apart.

Termite: A termite has two distinct body segments with a waistline closer to the head than the tail.
Ant: An ant has three distinct body segments with two waistlines nearly equidistant from each other, like a snow man.

Termite: Termite swarmer wings are almost cartoonishly long and narrow, extending a body length or more beyond the rear end or abdomen. The wings of termites also tend to lay back very straight, parallel with the body.
Ants: Ant wings extend just slightly past the end of the body. Their wings also tend to lie at a slight angle to the body, pointing away from the body at the bottom.

When Insects Swarm

Witnessing a swarm, especially indoors, is a very dramatic event. Typically you’ll see an exodus of several hundred or sometimes thousands of winged insects in just a few minutes.

Reproductives of both ants and termites generally swarm in the spring time, in order to perpetuate the species. They don’t want the new nest to compete with the old colony for resources, so they usually depart on windy days that will help carry them far away. The bugs often swarm after a rainfall, when the soil is moist, which makes it easier for them to burrow down into the ground to start their new outpost.

Don’t let the sight of winged ants or termites worry you. Swarmers typically live less than 24 hours unless they successfully burrow into soil. Consider the event a red flag warning you that there is a bug colony nearby.

If you believe you have ants, you can try putting out an ant bait like Terro at the site of the swarm. If you believe that you have termites or aren’t sure which insect has taken up residence, I suggest you consult with a trusted professional. Termite swarmers by themselves don’t damage structures but their stealthy family members will feed on a structure indefinitely unless treated.

How to Get Rid of Winged Ants and Termites—Some Quick Tips:

  • Create one light source. Swarmers are naturally attracted to light so if you have one main light source an in an otherwise dark room, all of the insects should go to that area.
  • Suck them up. If you have access to a vacuum with a hose attachment, simply suck up the insects.
  • Blow them away. Use a blowing a fan to create a sort of “wind wall” to contain the insects.
  • Block their way out. Try placing tape over the exit hole to prevent the swarmers’ escape.
Note: If you believe you have an ant or termite infestation, it is very important to keep a few insect samples for your pest management professional to confirm which bug you’ve got. Just place them on a piece of tape, or in a jar or zip top bag. Having samples is critical for determining the right treatment. It could also mean the difference between paying several hundred dollars to treat for ants, or thousands of dollars more to treat for termites.

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