The Difference Between Ants and Termites

Termite soldier
Linda Lewis/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Two Damaging Insects

Carpenter ants (Camponotus spp.) and termite (Isoptera) share several similarities, not the least of which is that they both are notorious for causing damage to wood in your home. Termites are roughly the same size as the many, many species of large ants that fall into the carpenter ant Camponotus group; and like carpenter ants, termites burrow into wet, rotting wood, making them the enemy of your home's framing. And because both carpenter ants and termites swarm in the springtime to mate, they are often confused for one another by homeowners spotting the swarms.

A closer look will reveal significant differences, however. Studying the insects closely with a magnifying glass or even with the naked eye will reveal these distinctions: 

Identifying Termites

  • A termite has no "waist"--instead, its body is more rectangular, without any narrowing in the center.
  • The termite has straight, beaded antennae.
  • The termite has four wings that are of equal size and shape. Its wings are also longer than its body.

Identifying Carpenter Ants

  • The carpenter ant has a very well-defined narrow, constricted waist.
  • The antennae of ants are bent or "elbowed."
  • A carpenter ant has four wings, with the back, hind wings shorter than its front fore wings.

Behavioral Differences

Other differences between the termite and the carpenter ant include:

  • Color: Ant workers are reddish or dark-colored and are frequently seen in the open foraging for food. Termite workers, by comparison, are transparent, light or creamy white in color,  and they avoid light. Termites are rarely noticed unless their nest is disturbed.
  • Wing durability: Although reproductives of both types of insects are winged, the wings of the termite fall off easily. The loose wings can often be seen near the opening to the termite nesting site and can be used to identify a termite infestation.
  • Use of wood: Termites eat the wood in which they nest. Carpenter ants merely dig into the wood to excavate their nests; they do not eat the wood but simply push it out through openings of the galleries of their colonies. Seeing small piles of wood shavings or frass (insect waste) below the holes helps to identify an infestation of carpenter ants. Carpenter ants seek out moist and damaged wood in which to excavate their nests; termites will chew right into sound wood.
  • Tunnel characteristics: The tunnels and galleries of the carpenter ants will be very smooth and finished; termite galleries, by comparison, are rough and ragged because they are filled with layers of soil and mud.
  • Mud tubes: A mud tube indicates the definite presence or previous presence of termites. These are tubes built on the outside of walls or between the soil and wood and serve as the passageways through which the termites travel.

Controlling Carpenter Ants and Termites

Because carpenter ants and termites are so different, effective control measures are also different for each. Carpenter ants can often be controlled through the elimination of the conditions which attracted them, but a termite infestation will generally require professional control.

If you do have winged ant-like insects in your home or building, it is best to try to collect a sample for identification. This can then be used to compare with online photos and graphics (from reliable sources, such as universities, extension services, or reliable pest-control company websites) or to show to an entomologist or to a pest-control professional for identification and recommended treatment.

For both insects, control will include a multi-prong approach using different chemicals to kill existing insects and to repel further infestation. Also of critical importance will be removing and replacing structural wood that has been damaged by the insects. A home's structure can be badly compromised by these insects over time.