Termites vs. Ants: How to Really Tell the Two Insects Apart

To effectively get rid of termites, you have to go back to the basics. Meaning, you have to know what’s really going on in a termites vs. ants scenario.

Why is this very important you ask? Because unlike ants, termites have damaging habits that make them a far worse enemy.

So the first step in killing them is being able to tell the difference between a destructive wood-eating termite and an ant that’s basically just a minor irritation around the house.

Termites vs. Ants: How to Really Tell the Two Insects Apart

Termites are different from ants, but there are some things that are somewhat similar about them. CC Image courtesy of Adam J. Manley (left) and Sancho McCann (right) on Flickr

Differences in Appearance

Ants and termites are basically different from one another. But being insects, there are bound to be similarities in their appearance.

Most people won’t confuse an ant for a termite if it has wings. However, darker colored termites that are wingless can easily be mistaken for ants.

Termites vs. Ants: How to Really Tell the Two Insects Apart: Dark Colored Termites

Ants or termites? These are actually dark termites. But they look more like ants! This is where it gets a little bit confusing. CC Image courtesy of Aleksey Gnilenkov on Flickr

So if you’re not confident with your identification skills, here’s what you should just remember.

For termites:
  • Termites have straight antennae.
  • Most of them have a lighter or pale color.
  • They have a thick waist (the middle part of their bodies).
  • Except for swarmers and royalty, termites are blind.
  • And they can sometimes look translucent. You can actually see what’s inside their segmented abdomen.
For ants:
  • Ants have curved antennae.
  • They have dark colors. Some are orange brown, and some look absolutely jet black.
  • They have a thin waist.
  • Ants also have eyes on the sides of their heads.
  • And their bodies are divided into three major parts: the head, the thorax and the gaster.

Swarmers

Termites vs. Ants: How to Really Tell the Two Insects Apart: Swarmers

Termite and ant alates have differ only on their antennae, waists and wings. CC Image courtesy of Bernard Dupont (left) and Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren (right) on Flickr

Swarmers are flying ants and termites. They fly off from the nest to start colonies of their own. It’s a good idea to know the differences between the two insects. This way, when they finally start flying to mate, you can tell which colony has infested your house.

According to Kill Termites Guide, the two only generally differ in three parts: the antenna shape, the waist size and the wings size.

The antennae of the termite and ant swarmers take after their wingless peers, straight and curved. The same goes for their waists, thick for termites and thin for ants.

The most obvious difference between the two would have to be their wings. Termite swarmers have longer wings that have the same size while ant alates have two pairs of shorter wings, the top pair bigger than the ones at the bottom.

For a better look at the differences between an ant and a termite swarmer, check out this infographic.

Differences and Similarities in Castes

Like ants, termites are social insects. Their colonies are made up of an absolute hierarchy. They have castes (classes) that dictate how each member of the colony should live out its life until it dies.

For termites, there are three major castes, and each one has a lot of responsibilities.

Soldiers…
  • have big mandibles to protect the colony
  • can be male or female but are sterile
  • can’t feed themselves because of their huge mouths, so they have to be fed by workers
Workers…
  • can be male or female but are also sterile
  • make up more than 90% of the colony
  • forage for food
  • build nests and mud tubes
  • take care of termite eggs, newborns and young swarmers
Swarmers…
  • are fertile males or females
  • have wings
  • mate and create more colonies in different locations

For ants, there are four main castes. The key difference between them and the termites is that they have two kinds of alates.

Soldiers…
  • also have huge mandibles to protect the colony
  • are all females
  • can help workers carry large objects
Workers…
  • are all females
  • also make up more than 90% of the colony
  • also forage for food, build nests, take care of the eggs, newborns and young swarmers and drones
  • take care of the queen
Swarmers…
  • are all females
  • also have wings
  • also mate and create more colonies in different locations
Drones…
  • are the only male ants of the colony
  • also have wings
  • also mate and create more colonies in different locations
  • die after mating

Differences in Eating Habits

Both insects are consumers with big appetites. However, when it comes to snacking, each one has a different thing in mind.

Termites are detritivores with a diet that’s mainly for cellulose-based materials that are no longer alive. They eat dead wood. They consume dead or decaying trees, dead plants, lumber, bamboo, some types of mulches, cardboard boxes and even paper.

Meanwhile, ants are omnivores. They’ll eat almost anything, both the living and the dead. They feed on fungi, leaves, fruits, nectar, other insects, other animals, food from us humans, meat and even their fellow ants. If you want to know more about their eating habits, here's more info for you.

Similarities in Building Colonies

Termites vs. Ants: How to Really Tell the Two Insects Apart: Ant Lines from Nest

Ants can live virtually anywhere inside a house. CC Image courtesy of keeping it real on Flickr

Despite being very different, ants and termites do have similarities in building their colonies.

Both colonies thrive in dark places. They also need ample moisture and temperature to survive.

For subterranean termites and most ants, building complex nests underground is preferable. Their workers go up only to look for more food.

Wood is also not a lone termite territory. Like drywood termites that prefer to live inside lumber, carpenter ants have developed mouths that can chew through wood to build their nests. They don’t really eat the wood, but they can be spotted building colonies inside wood.

So where do termites and ants differ when it comes starting their colonies?

While termites have a more reserved idea of home, ants can live just about anywhere, from inside electronic devices, inside books, around tubs, under bathroom tiles and even in the kitchen sink.

Differences in Treatments

Termites and ants can be tricky to kill. But termites have a worse reputation when it comes to pest control.

In society, we don’t really see ants as destructive pests that we need to get rid of right away. We rightly hand this image to termites because they can level a house in a few years.

So there aren’t a lot of treatment options for ants out there.

Baiting

One treatment that they both have in common though is baiting.

Baiting lures insects into a station and kills them with a slow acting toxin that can spread throughout the insect’s colony.

Ant baits can be granules, gels or stations. According to Do Your Own Pest Control, the active ingredient in them are sugar-based or grease/ protein-based that lure a variety of ant species.

Termite baits do the same but with stations filled with wood or other cellulose-based ingredients.

Natural and Non-Toxic Treatments

There are also natural ways to get rid of both insects.

For termites, you can use treatments like orange oil, aloe vera, cardboard baits, sunlight, borax, cold and hot temperatures and nematodes.

For ants, you’ll have to have an arsenal of natural ingredients such as lemon juice, borax, pepper, flour, salt and vinegar. You can check out the full instructions on those treatments here.

Ants and termites have similarities, but they ultimately differ in how we see them. Though often thought of as a more superior insect, ants don’t really compare to how destructive termites are. They’re more of a nuisance that we can live it. That’s why we have to be able to tell them apart.

For more, check out our guide to getting rid of ants as well as our complete guide to termite treatment.​