Termite or Ant? Here's How to Tell

Updated on July 21, 2019
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Eastern subterranean termites
Eastern subterranean termites | Source

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

Knowing the Difference Between a Termite and an Ant is Becoming Critically Important

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.

Wood ants, showing the typical ant body shape
Wood ants, showing the typical ant body shape

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 than 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 to 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.

Ant Physiology

Diagram showing the physical properties of winged and non-winged ant forms
Diagram showing the physical properties of winged and non-winged ant forms | Source

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.

Reticulitermes Flavipes, the Eastern Subterranean Termite

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, the 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.

Termite Physiology

Diagram showing the various forms of the termite
Diagram showing the various forms of the termite | Source

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.

Flying ants and flying termites appear similar, but have several key differences
Flying ants and flying termites appear similar, but have several key differences | Source

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.

Termite Damage

Source

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!

Resources

The following sources were used for this guide:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2vNfmiti0iM

http://www.biologydiscussion.com/invertebrate-zoology/phylum-arthropoda/study-notes-on-termites-with-diagram/33504

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eastern_subterranean_termitehttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DYPQ1Tjp0ew

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DYPQ1Tjp0ew

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