Winged Invaders: Termites vs. Flying Ants
While carpenter ants also pose a risk of structural damage to houses and other buildings of economic importance to human beings, they are not considered to pose the same level of threat that termites do.
Termites inflict approximately $30 billion (US dollars) of physical damage a year and that harm being particularly pernicious because termites eat wood which can quickly undermine the structural integrity of any structure in which they nest. Carpenter ants do not consume wood or cellulose products, but rather only bore into them to establish their nests.
The damage a mature carpenter ant colony inflicts is usually moderate and localized in comparison to the rampaging and widespread destruction a mature termite infestation will eventually present.
Carpenter ants and termites are both distinguished by reproductive forms that are winged and called “alates”. These reproductives or sexually mature insect forms similarly set out in swarms at specific times of the year to find new nesting sites where they can establish new colonies. Alates of termites and carpenter ants both respond and release in reaction to ideal conditions which include warm bright sustained sunlight, warm temperatures and low winds among more subtle environmental cues.
There is a basic difference in the behavior of the termite and ant reproductives. Male and female termite alates pair off and remain a breeding couple for the span of their lives—and termite reproductives can live for as long as 70 years. Ants on the other hand pair off only to mate, shortly after which the male ant reproductive dies and the queen alone establishes the colony, her one sexual encounter enabling her to reproduce many generations of colony inhabitants. The average life span of a queen ant is 15 years.
Being able to distinguish between the two species will enable a homeowner to better protect his investment and stop an infestation of either early in the game when damage is minimal and more easy to fix.
Difference Between Flying Ants and Termites
While termite alates are often mistaken for flying ants, there is relatively little similarity in the physical forms when one compares them side by side.
Distinctive identifying characteristics of the physical form of carpenter ant alates include:
• “Elbowed” antenna: the most distinctive characteristic of a carpenter ant is the right angle configuration of the flying ant antenna. Shaped like the crook of an elbow or an “L”, the antennae are further distinguished by being relatively smooth with bulbous ends.
• Large fore-wings, smaller hind wings. While both species have two pairs of wings, the carpenter ant reproductive form is immediately identifiable by its large forward set of wings, which dwarf the smaller hind wings. Further, the length of ant wings is generally proportional to its body length, or only slightly longer.
• Durable wings: in addition to the difference in the length of fore and hind wings in a carpenter ant, their wings are not easily dislodged.
• Body shape: In the flying ant, the body is made up of three distinct segments: the head, the thorax and the abdomen. The ant alate is visually distinctive from a termite by the “constricted waist” appearance of its body, a marked narrowing of the connection between thorax and abdomen.
In contrast termite alates (or swarmers as they are also known) display the following characteristics which can be noted with the naked eye.
• Antennae: termite antennae have a beaded appearance—like a necklace of pearls—and are straight or gently curved in configuration. There is no end structure as with the flying ant, all the beads of the antenna “necklace” are uniform in size and shape.
• Wings: like flying ants, termite alates have two pairs, however in the termite the wings are of equal length and width. Additionally, termite reproductives sport wings that are at least twice the length of the termite’s body.
• Fragile Wings: The attachment of wings to a termite reproductive’s body is tenuous and the slightest touch to them can result in the wings being broken or dropping off. This is because upon arrival at a suitable nesting site, the reproductives begin to burrow into the wood food source, and shed their wings immediately upon so doing.
• Body shape: the body of a termite is composed of only two visible sections—the head and the body. The body is relatively straight and unsegmented, and is half the length of the wings. They have no discernable waist—their bodies are straight sided.
There are other differences between termites vs. flying ants on a more subtle and non visual level.
Termites undergo what is called a “gradual metamorphosis”. In short this means that termites transform from egg to nymph and then adult stages. The nymph stage is often indistinguishable from the adult form of a termite. A termite worker, the most sizeable population of any colony, is small bodied, usually white or brown and looks soft and unsegmented. Reproductives are dark bodied and have wings. Soldier termites have massive jaws but bodies similar to worker termites.
Ants on the other hand undergo what is called a “complete metamorphosis”. This is comprised of four very different life stages each of which is very distinctive in visual appearance from its predecessor. Ants go through egg, larvae, pupa and adult stage. In the adult stage an ant looks like an ant, and is quite easily distinguished from its immature forms.
Another difference between flying ants and termites is in how they swarm.
• The most prevalent and destructive termite species, the subterranean releases its reproductives in large amounts (several hundred on average) on warm, sunny, low wind days which usually have followed a rainy period
• Most termite species swarm in the early spring
• Subterranean termites begin to swarm in the mid-morning to mid afternoon daylight period (Formosan termites, a subspecies of subterranean prefer to swarm at night as do drywood termites). These swarms can last for several hours.
• Termite swarms that have penetrated the interior of a home will often be attracted to the light of windows, window sills and lighting fixtures and will attempt to burrow through into substructures at these points. Outdoor swarms will generally search out cracks and fissures in wood, or attempt to burrow in at joists and joins.
Flying ant swarms on the other hand have the following characteristics:
• Ant swarms occur most noticeably in the late spring and summer months
• Most ant species will swarm only once during a reproductive period, however fire ants can swarm several times during the spring and summer months.
• Ant colonies are generally 2-3 years old before they release reproductives.
• Flying ants generally prefer decaying wood, so are more likely to invade tree stumps and rotting logs. Their presence in a home generally indicates a pre-existing state of decay in the wood of the structure, weather from water or other damage or extreme age.
Flying Ants vs. Termites Pictures
The best tool for learning to distinguish termites vs. flying ants is a visual one. The images below illustrate the basic body morphology differences between these two destructive species.