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What’s the difference between ants and termites?

  • Nanette Londeree
  • While sitting on your patio relishing the beauty of spring, your reverie is interrupted by an unsightly mob of flying insects. The cloud of creatures, numbering in the hundreds or more, swirl around near the corner of the house ... they look like ants, but could they be termites?

    This time of the year many insects, including termites and ants, are looking for new places to call home. When Mother Nature delivers the right cues — warmer temperatures, brighter sunlight and mild winds — it's time for these insects to go searching for a suitable new nesting site away from their current abode.

    The mass exodus of the winged pests, called swarmers, can be a rather dramatic sight, but should not cause undue concern. Before taking any action, take a closer look at the creature. Telling the difference between ants and termites is important. Ants are generally just a nuisance, while termites can cause significant damage to a home.

    Both ants and termites are social insects with highly developed organizations that include individuals with unique functions, the most common being workers. Dark in color with a hard exterior, worker ants can be found inside and outside the home and in the garden. Worker termites are light colored and soft-bodied; they are not often visible as they desiccate and die when exposed to dry conditions even for a short time.

    The winged versions of ants and termites, called alates, look very similar at a distance, but up close have a few distinctive differences. Ant bodies have a very thin "waist" (like a wasp), while the termites have thicker midsections. The two pairs of wings on an ant are not alike in size and shape; the long termite wings are more or less equal in size. And if you can get close enough, look at the insects' antennae; ants have ones that are bent or elbowed while termite antennae are straight and beadlike.

    Locating the source of the flying pests can aid in identification. Ants usually nest in soil, often next to buildings, along sidewalks, or in close proximity to food sources including plants and trees that support honeydew-producing insects. Of the two common termites in our area, the subterranean termite lives under ground and digs tunnels to get access your home and any wood or paper they may find there. Drywood termites make their home inside of yours. Wood blisters, discarded wings or termite waste that looks like sawdust on windowsills or floors are indicators of their presence.

    If you're confident that the winged insects are ants, you can implement control measures to eliminate them. Focus efforts on keeping them from entering your home by caulking entryways, cleaning up food sources, and baiting when necessary. If you suspect you have termites, call a professional. Do-it-yourself treatments are generally not adequate to manage a termite infestation as each species requires different treatment. Even if you manage to kill the visible insects and close off the hole or crack they entered from, you will need to address the potentially deeper problem that could be eating away at your home's very structure.

    To deal with the unwanted flying pests (swarming is short-lived, usually only lasting a day), here's what to do:

    • Concentrate them in one area: Swarmers are naturally attracted to light; exclude all but a single light source to draw them into the desired area.
    • Block their way out: Visually inspect where the swarmers might be entering; place tape over the exit hole to prevent the swarmers' escape.
    • Clean them up: Use your vacuum with a hose attachment to suck up the insects.

    If you there is any doubt about whether the swarmers are ants or termites, keep a few in a container to show a professional.