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Termites vs. Ants: How to Tell the Difference (2022)

By Sarah Horvath

Seeing any type of creepy crawlies in the home can leave even the most prepared homeowner feeling uneasy. If you know that you’ve got insects in your home, you might be preparing to call a pest control company to handle the issue. But do you really know which pests are “bugging” you in your home?

Despite the fact that they are completely different classes of insects, termites and carpenter ants share many of the same characteristics. For example, both termites and carpenter ants cause problems for homeowners by chewing through wooden structures on the property.

However, while a carpenter ant infestation can be annoying, termites can cause far more severe structural damage. This makes it especially important to know whether ants or termites are causing the wood damage on your property and call for the appropriate extermination services.

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Warning Signs of a Carpenter Ant or Termite Infestation

Termites and ants show different warning signs, which are the first indication that you have a pest infestation. Keep an eye out for the following symptoms, which can make it easier to identify the infestation before it becomes a major issue.

Causes of Infestation

Termites feed primarily on cellulose, a type of naturally occurring fiber found in wood and wooden structures. This readily available food source is the number one cause of termite infestations. Some common causes of termite infestations in residential homes include:

  • Wood piles: If you chop firewood, or keep logs on your property to throw into your fireplace when you need them, you might be inviting termites into your home. Wood piles and wood sawdust provide an amazing food source for termites — which can lead to these pests entering your home. If you store firewood on your property, be sure that your supply is at least 20 feet away from your home.
  • Stumps: Like wood piles, stumps provide an inviting food source for termites. If you have a stump on your property, consider calling for professional stump removal, especially if you live in a part of the country where termites are known to be present.
  • Mulching: If your outdoor mulch pile touches your home, termites can and will enter it. They’ll find cracks in your foundation and travel into your house — where they will cause a lot of termite damage. As mulching is often made up of chipped wood, avoid allowing mulch to directly touch your home whenever possible.

Wood near your home, piles of trash, spilled food, and crumbs can also attract carpenter ants. Like termites, carpenter ants are attracted to wood. However, the jaws of a carpenter ant are not as strong as termites’, which precludes them from eating wood. Instead, carpenter ants search for soft, damp wood they can use to create tunnels to raise their young in.

Damp wood is often found in windowsills, wooden beams, and the area beneath your sink. Walk through your home to identify areas where damp wood is present, and fix the underlying moisture issues to keep termites out.

Damage and Signs to Look Out For

One of the most obvious signs of a termite infestation is damage to your wood. Take a look at the wood in your home and search for signs of termite damage, which may include pinhole-like tunnels and warping on doors and windowsills. If a section of your wood has been severely damaged, you might also hear a noise similar to crinkling paper when you push on it. Blistering on wooden surfaces is also a common sign of damage from drywood termites.

If you have subterranean termites on your property, you may also see mud tubes leading to your home. Subterranean termites use these tunnels to travel between food sources and their nest, control their body temperatures when humidity rises, and hide from predators. You might also notice thin mud tunnels leading to the foundation of your house. If you do see mud tunnels, be sure to call a pest control professional as soon as possible — subterranean termite infestations can cause severe damage to your home, so a fast response is crucial.

Carpenter ants, by comparison, are less of a hazard to your home. When you have a carpenter ant infestation, you’re likely to see groups of ants feeding and bringing food back to their young. If your infestation is severe, carpenter ant damage will usually be contained to moist, damp areas of your home. For example, if you have a decaying windowsill in your home, carpenter ants might be drawn to it to create new colonies. These new colonies will then invade your home and search for food. Remember that carpenter ants do not eat the wood they burrow in — so if you notice extensive damage, you’ve probably got a termite infestation.

Differences in What They Look and Sound Like

Though termites and carpenter ants might look similar, these two pests have a number of distinct physical characteristics. Here’s how to tell if you’re dealing with termites or carpenter ants just by looking at them.

How to Identify Termites

When determining if you have an ant or termite infestation, look for the following warning signs:

  • Body: Most termites have bodies that are rectangular or oblong in shape. Their bodies are about the same width in most areas. Termites’ bodies are also transparent, which makes them difficult to spot.
  • Antennae: Termites have straight antennae. Their antennae do not bend in any area, but they are adorned with small beads throughout.
  • Wings: Both termites and carpenter ants can fly, and both insects have two sets of wings. However, termite wings are all the same size, regardless of where they are on the insect’s body. A termite’s wings are much longer than its body, and these delicate wings are fragile as well. Wings discarded near tunnels and mud tubes are a telltale sign that you’re dealing with termites.

In addition to their physical differences, you can also differentiate termites from flying ants by the sounds they make. Termites are constantly gnawing and chewing on wood — and while this sound may not be prominent during the day, you may be able to hear it at night. Soldier termites have also been known to bash their heads against the walls of the colony’s tunnels when they sense that a predator is nearby. This head-banging sound is usually more audible than chewing, but you’ll only hear it periodically.

How to Identify Carpenter Ants

You can differentiate a carpenter ant from a termite using the following physical characteristics:

  • Body: The body of a carpenter ant looks a little like an hourglass. Following the head of the ant, you’ll see a narrow, pinched “waist” in the abdomen of the ant. Most ant species are dark red or brown in color. Unlike termites, carpenter ants have no problem being active during the daytime, so you might spot a few flying around your home.
  • Antennae: Unlike a termite, an ant’s antennae are “elbowed.” Elbowed antennae bend slightly in the center and extend beyond the body of the ant.
  • Wings: Ant wings are not uniform in shape like a termite. If you examine an ant closely, you’ll notice that its back hind wings are shorter than its forewings. An ant’s wings are also more proportional in size than a termite’s wings, which will usually extend beyond its body.

Contrary to popular belief, ants can and do make noise to communicate with one another. However, these humming sounds are far too high-pitched for humans to hear, even when an ant infestation is present. If you identify carpenter ants in your home, it’s usually because you saw one — or 100.

Differences in Activity and Behavior

In addition to their physical differences, termites and carpenter ants also show very different behaviors, especially when it comes to what they eat and how they nest.

Differences in What They Eat

A termite’s primary source of food is cellulose, a type of plant fiber. Some common sources of cellulose that might be attracting termites to your property can include piles of firewood, decaying wooden structures, and mulching. Though termites can survive entirely off wood, they may also feed on fabric, animal feces, and paper if they are available. As a byproduct of feeding, termites may also produce shavings or wood pellets, which you’re likely to find located near tunnels.

Though carpenter ants may damage your wood while creating burrows, they will not consume the wood in the same way termites will. Instead, colonies will develop where they find plenty of sources of protein. Ants may consume living and dead insects (including termites), and they are attracted to sugars. Overall, ants are not picky eaters, and they can thrive if you leave access to food, scraps, or garbage.

Differences in How They Nest

The most dangerous type of termite is the subterranean termite. Subterranean termites are best known for creating extensive tunnel systems beneath the earth. These termites live in this underground colony and develop mud tunnels connecting their colonies to your property. When they get hungry, they venture out of their colony to feed on the wood in your home, then use the tunnel to return. This can make termites especially elusive pests, as you may not actually see a termite until your infestation is severe.

Carpenter ants prefer to create their colonies directly inside of your home. These pests often burrow barely noticeable tunnels through the wood structures in your home, which they then use to lay eggs and form a colony. Unlike termites, carpenter ants will not actually consume the wood that they damage, preferring to take advantage of the structure for nesting. You are much more likely to notice the damaging effects of nesting if you have termites than if you have ants.

Differences in Life Cycle

Ants have a very short lifespan and may live for just a few months. While a queen ant can live for years, ants die and reproduce more quickly than other insects. Termites have a significantly longer lifespan. Depending on the species, a single termite can live up to 12 years, while a termite queen might live for decades. This means that not only is a termite infestation more serious than a carpenter ant infestation — it’s also likely to last much longer as well.

Pest Control for Termites and Carpenter Ants

Did you know that termites cause more than $5 billion in damage each year? Whether you think you have a termite infestation or just an ant colony to tackle, calling for pest control services as soon as you notice bugs in your home is essential. Here’s what to expect when you call in the best professionals to deal with pest problems.

How They are Treated

The treatment your exterminator will use to get rid of termites will vary depending on the severity of the infestation and the type of termites that you have on your property. Most pest control services’ first line of attack with termites is to use bait stations. Bait stations lure termites away from your property — worker termites believe that the poison in these stations is food, search for it, and die after consuming the bait.

However, this method is typically effective only for small to moderate termite infestations. If you have a serious infestation, the pest control service might recommend fumigation. Fumigation is an intensive pest eradication service that may force you to temporarily leave your home during treatment.

To treat a carpenter ant infestation, your pest control company will first locate and disturb the ants’ nests. The exterminator will begin by drilling small holes near the location of the wiring in your home. Ants use interior wiring to travel, so their nests are usually located near electrical cords. Exterminators will then puff boric acid powder into the holes to kill the ants in their nests. Depending on the severity of your infestation, this process might need to be repeated a few times before you can safely seal up the holes.

How Long Treatment Takes

Like the type of treatment used, the length of time that it will take to eradicate your pests will vary depending on the size of your home and the level of infestation. If you have a small or moderate termite problem and your exterminator uses bait stations, it will usually take a few days to kill off the termites. This is due to the time it takes termites to find the station and bring poison back to their colony. In most cases, you’ll see bait stations begin to take effect about four to six days after the initial treatment. If your exterminator needs to fumigate your property, you may need to vacate your home for up to three days.

Carpenter ants can be a bit trickier to get rid of because their colonies tend to be both extensive and resilient. Your pest control service may need to return to your home multiple times to be sure that your treatment has fully taken effect, and that no ants have survived to repopulate. In most cases, your treatment for carpenter ants will take between six and 14 days.

How to Prevent Termites

Any pest control expert will tell you that you should take active steps as a homeowner to prevent termite infestations. Though most insect infestations are annoying, even a small termite infestation has the potential to cause serious damage to the structural integrity of your home. Use these preventive measures to reduce the possibility that you’ll need to deal with termites on your property:

Keep Soil Away from Wood

When working to prevent termites, the first step that you should take is to remove as many soil-to-wood contact points near your home as possible. Termites look for wood to eat and burrow through, and they travel through soil to avoid predators. This means that anywhere you have soil touching wood on your property, there is a chance that termites will move in.

Stack firewood at least 20 feet away from your house — this will lessen the chance that any termites who find themselves in your firewood can enter your home. Regularly clean brush and debris from your yard, and avoid using mulching near the perimeter of your home whenever possible. Consider contacting a professional tree service company if you have a stump or decaying wood on your property with the potential to attract termites.

Don’t Encourage Swarming

Swarming is a behavior that termites use in early spring to locate new locations to build a colony. Reduce swarmers to limit the opportunities termites have to establish new burrows on your property. To reduce the possibility of swarming, start by relocating sources of exterior lighting away from your home, as lighting attracts swarming insects after the sun sets. Turn off your outdoor lights as often as possible — you may want to invest in motion-activated lighting if you have a recurring termite problem.

Seal Cracks in Your Home

Materials like PVC, wood, and certain types of plaster expand and contract as humidity levels shift. This can cause crevices and cracks to form in your home, which can provide termites with an opportunity to strike. Remember that termites can enter through a crack as small as a fraction of an inch — so even if you don’t live in an area with high humidity levels, you could still be at risk.

Take a tour of your property with caulking and look for potential areas where termites could use a crack to enter your home. Seal gaps around water and gas lines using foam sealant — if you have a larger space, you can also employ steel meshing to close the opening as well. Remove any structures on your home made from damaged or rotting wood, and replace them with termite-resistant materials (like pressure-treated wood).

How to Prevent Carpenter Ants

Many of the steps that you’ll use to prevent termites will also be effective in preventing carpenter ants. Here are a few additional steps you can take to make sure that you won’t be dealing with a carpenter ant infestation this season:

Clean Up Leftovers

Carpenter ants cannot maintain a colony in an area without readily available food sources. The best way to prevent carpenter ants from making their home inside of yours is to eliminate their food sources. Keep food and cooking materials in the kitchen, and make sure that you clean up any leftovers as soon as you’re finished. Keep cleaning supplies readily available for wiping up crumbs, and keep your trash can lid sealed when not in use. Food should always be kept stored in tightly sealed containers. If carpenter ants cannot find food in your home, they’ll move to greener pastures when choosing where to settle down.

Improve Ventilation and Reduce Moisture

In addition to food sources, ants also need to be able to access a small amount of water or moisture in order to survive and reproduce. Once a month, search for areas where water might be pooling in your home, as even a minor leak can attract ants. Areas in your property where you might be likely to find dangerous standing water include the cabinets under your sinks, cracks in your home’s foundation, and areas of your lawn without proper drainage.

Remove Developing Trails

If you’ve already got a few ants in your home, you can avoid making a small problem larger by removing any ant trails currently on your property. Ants leave scent trails for other ants to follow, which helps each member of the colony locate food sources and find their way back to the colony. Observe the ants on your property and see how they’re entering your home. Then, create a simple trail removal spray by combining a bit of white vinegar with a spray bottle of warm water. Apply the mixture to the route that ants are using to get into your home — this will effectively render the ants’ pheromone trails useless, and they will not be able to locate the food in your home.

Termites vs. Ants FAQ

Is a termite stronger than an ant?

While most people know that termites and ants are both pests, not many people fully know that these insects are also natural enemies. When you compare both pests in terms of pure strength, termites are significantly stronger than ants, with stronger jaws and more organized soldiers. When termites and ants fight in the wild one-on-one, the termite is almost always victorious.

Are termites afraid of ants?

Not usually. Termites have strong bodies that are built for combat, but they are not as aggressive as ants. While termites are not “afraid” of ants in the same way that a human might be afraid of a spider, termites do not go out of their way to avoid or attack ants. On the opposite end of the spectrum, ants are exceptionally aggressive when in the presence of termites, and may even hunt termites for food.

How do you tell if it's a termite or ant?

You can quickly tell if you’re dealing with termites or ants by taking a look at the insect’s body. Termites have long wings that extend beyond their body, while ants’ wings are proportional to their body shape. Ants also have wings that are unequal in size, while all four of a termite’s wings are the same size. Ants also have a pinched “waist” in their midsections, while a termite’s body is shaped like a rectangle.

What attracts termites to a house?

The number one thing that attracts termites to your home is the presence of wood, especially decaying wood. Termites feed on wood fibers, which means that their colonies need to have access to wood that’s touching soil in order to create a colony. You can discourage termites from visiting your home by keeping firewood and debris away from the perimeter of your home, removing stumps and tree branches, and keeping soil on your property dry.

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