Trying to identify an insect pest can be difficult at times, especially when looking at species as similar as termites and carpenter ants. The two groups are of similar size and shape and both tend to swarm around the same time of year, spring. Perhaps most importantly, both can cause significant structural damage to the home by wearing down wooden structures. However, there are several physical and behavioral characteristics that can help one distinguish between the two groups, making it easier to determine the best course of action for removal.
Color is often a helpful identifier, as carpenter ants tend to be some shade of red-brown, while worker and soldier termites are predominantly a very light cream color or even transparent. Color is not always helpful, however, as swarming termites tend to be similar in color to ants. Another way to tell the difference is the overall body shape of the insect. The last two segments of an ant’s body are clearly separated by a narrow area, often called a “waist”, while termites lack this obvious delineation.
Other characteristics can be subtler but still helpful in identification. Both carpenter ants and termites have four wings during swarming, which are not present the rest of the year. Termite wings are all the same size, while the back pair of wings on carpenter ants are smaller than the front pair. The antennae are also distinct with ants having a clear bend in their antennae while those found on termites are straight.
Perhaps one of the most apparent differences between these pest animals is what they are doing to damage the wood. Termites are capable of digesting wood products, which is relatively uncommon among animals, so the damage is caused by them eating the material. Carpenter ants do not ingest wood but cause damage by burrowing into it to create their nests. Small piles of wood shavings near holes are a sign of carpenter ants, since they push out the wood scraps rather than eating them. The wood chosen by the two groups can also vary, as carpenter ants typically seek out wet or rotting wood, while termites will even eat strong, fresh materials.
The nest designs themselves are substantially different. Ants create very clean, smooth tunnels, but termite tunnels usually have a less finished appearance with some debris found inside. Another clear indication of termites is the presence of small tunnels of dirt and wood debris around the nest called mud tubes. Termites use these tubes to protect them when venturing outside the nest, as they must avoid drying out and typically stay out of direct light. Ants, however, can often be seen foraging in the open, even in bright rooms.