Termite or Ant? How to Tell the Difference

Subterranean termites mainly live underground or in protected areas such as galleries in wood. At a minimum there is always one queen, and many more “secondary reproductives” that are usually present. Most people never see a queen, but may see swarmers or workers.


Winged Subterranean Termite Swarmer

(photo courtesy of Oklahoma State Extension)


The total number of individuals in a colony of subterranean termites can total more than a million. Imagine a million insects attacking your house at one time! Workers are small white insects. They are blind and very sensitive to heat, cold and dry air. This sensitivity is why they build shelter tubes or “mud tubes.” In fact, they need to maintain an atmosphere of nearly 100 percent humidity. It is possible that if you find shelter tubes, a little smaller in diameter than a pencil, you are noticing the first sign of a termite infestation. Workers are just that, the workforce of the colony whose job it is to find new food sources such as vegetation or wood containing cellulose. Once termites find a food source they put down a chemical signal or pheromone to lead the other workers to the feeding site. They forage and find food sources, commonly in moist areas. When they discover your house or other buildings, they become a real pest and that is when you should give us a call! In most areas of the country, depending on the species, healthy subterranean termite colonies will “swarm” or send out winged reproductive termites to start new colonies in the spring. The swarmers are darker in color, some species are almost black, and have four, similarly-sized wings. For more information on how to tell termites from ants, see the diagram below.

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