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What Is the Difference Between Termites and Ants?
Termites and ants may appear similar, and in some respects, they are. However, there are very important differences – one of them is far more destructive than the other, for example. It pays to know the difference between termites and ants; this quick and easy guide can help.
A Critically Important Distinction
To most people, termites and ants look very much alike, even though there are distinct differences between them. If you see small, ant-like creatures inside your home, the most natural assumption is that they're simply ants. But if they're not, if they are, in fact, termites, you likely have been infested by a notorious insect that is literally eating your house out from under you.
As termite populations spread, people who live in places where termites have been very rare or nonexistent may begin to find infestations cropping up in previously untouched houses. If you learn the difference between termites and very similar-looking ants, you can protect your house.
With a little practice, you can learn to tell the difference between termites and ants.
All About Ants
Ants are insects in the same order as wasps and bees (Hymenoptera). They typically lack wings and are smaller than the insects in those groups, but like bees and wasps, nearly all ants can sting. Some species, such as the red imported fire ant, (RIFA) are serious pests that can drive down property values and launch serious, sometimes fatal attacks on people and pets. They make nests in your yard and will attack anyone who comes too close - their stings are unpleasant and, in rare cases, can actually pose a health hazard.
The ants you find crawling around inside your home, however, are almost always simply looking for a few crumbs of food and won't sting you. They are attracted to either sweet or savory bits of food left on counters, floors, and sinks. Their nests are typically just outside your walls. Compared to termites, ants are simply a nuisance; termites can destroy your home.
The ants you find crawling around inside your home, however, are almost always simply looking for a few crumbs of food and won't sting you... Compared to termites, ants are simply a nuisance; termites can destroy your home.
All About Termites
Termites are small, pale insects that superficially resemble ants. The species that causes the most damage in the US is Reticulitermes flavipes, the eastern subterranean termite. These termites are the most economically important wood-destroying insects in the United States and are the basis of a huge extermination industry wherever they occur.
R. flavipes feeds on cellulose, which is the substance that makes up the chief part of the cell walls of plants. Cellulose occurs naturally in fibrous products and is the raw material of many manufactured goods such as paper, rayon, structural wood in buildings, wooden fixtures, paper, books, and cotton.
A large termite colony can consist of millions of individuals, and given time, they can eat enough of a home's structural support to cause it to collapse completely.
Tropical Termites Are Expected to Expand Their Range
An alarming study in the scientific journal Ecology and Evolution points to an impending invasion by tropical termites into new areas of the world. Homes that were previously safe from termite damage will be susceptible to attack as termite species relocate due to man-made and natural forces. According to the study, "The substantial economic and ecological damage caused by invasive termites is likely to increase in response to climate change, increased urbanization, and accelerating economic globalization, acting singly or interactively." [Buczkowski and Bertelsmeier. Ecol Evol. 2017 Feb; 7(3): 974–985.]
The substantial economic and ecological damage caused by invasive termites is likely to increase in response to climate change, increased urbanization, and accelerating economic globalization, acting singly or interactively."
— Buczkowski and Bertelsmeier, Ecology and Evolution
Winged Ants Versus Winged Termites
Both ants and termites may have wings, or they may be wingless. However, the basic body design does not change, whether there are wings or not. Ants have three distinct body segments, and antennae with a bend or "crook" in the middle, while termite antennae are straight. Another good determining characteristic is body shape and segments: Ants have three distinctly separated body segments, while termites have body segments that are much less distinct and do not appear separate.
Hidden Damage Can Go Unnoticed
Termites feed constantly and out of sight. The result is irreversible damage that can go unnoticed for a long time while the insects feed inside. A home infested with a termite colony will often appear structurally sound from the outside, while inside, it will have a honeycombed appearance due to the termites feeding on the softer wood.
Tests can quickly determine whether or not there is termite damage in a home, but often one of the few signs of a termite infestation is the occasional presence of individual insects on floors or walls.
Basics of Termite Control
While the various methods and protocols for dealing with a termite infestation are beyond the scope of this article, the main methods for fighting a termite attack include physical barriers, chemical treatments, and physical treatments such as heat, freezing, electrocution and microwave irradiation. Termite eradication is costly and typically requires you to move out of your house for some length of time.
If you have let the infestation go on for too long, your home may be deemed unfit for human habitation; the danger of collapsing floors, walls, and ceilings may force you to tear down all or part of your home and rebuild.
What To Do if You Think You Have Termites
Quite simply, if you suspect you have a termite problem, call a good pest control agent in your area and have them do an inspection. Ask to see the termites yourself, and if you have any doubts, don't hesitate to get a second opinion. Your home could depend on your prompt action!
The following sources were used for this guide:
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Sonya on June 07, 2020:
I want to know if termites are found in Chicago area. Specifically Lake County, Illinois. I live in Zion, Il.