For the average homeowner, it can be a challenge to find out if the tiny, dark-colored, winged insects that are swarming all over their house are carpenter ants
or termites. They both look the same to the naked eye - black with wings – and many people have trouble telling them apart. However, a treatment for carpenter ants is very different from a termite treatment, so being able to tell them apart could save you a lot of trouble and money in the long run.
While both are a dreadful pest, known particularly for their destructive nature, there are plenty of differences in their size, appearance, nest formation, and the extent of damage they cause. Here are a few key indicators to help you differentiate between them:
1) Wings of different length and shape
- Carpenter ants and termites both have two pairs of wings (four altogether). Termites’ wings are all of the same length, while the carpenter ants’ differ in size: the front wings are noticeably larger than the back wings.
- Since the wings of both ants and termites tend to go straight back, it can be hard to determine the culprit just by looking at the length. What you will be able to notice is the difference in color: carpenter ants have a black dot on the tip of their wings and visible dark veins, whereas the termite wings are creamy-white and translucent.
2) Body shape
- The wings of termites are easily detachable, and you may come across broken wings in places with intense termite activity, while those of ants do not break off as easily.
have a full body mostly uniform in width, and the three regions – head, thorax, and abdomen – are not readily visible. On the other hand, carpenter ants have a constricted waist between the thorax and the abdomen, and the three body regions are easily noticeable.
In carpenter ants, they are jointed and elbowed, while termites have a set of straight antennae
with beadlike segments. Since these are pretty small, they should be observed under magnification.
Perhaps the most important distinction between carpenter ants and termites is that the first do not eat the wood they reside in, while the latter do, and this is also visible in the type of nest they form. Carpenter ants can establish nests both inside and outside the house, but they will be attracted primarily by wood suffering from moisture damage because it’s easier to chew and also ensures the colony’s reproduction and growth. Looking at damaged wood, you will notice their tunnels are clean, while the walls of the tunnels look as if they had been sandpapered. Frass (sawdust, soil, and body parts) is often found beneath openings to the nest.
Termites establish their nest in a plot of soft soil, but also go above ground looking for additional sources of food. To protect themselves from predators and also to ensure the needed temperature and moisture, they build long tubes out of mud and fecal materials, called exploratory tubes. The tubes are about as thick as a pencil and are usually seen running up the sides of exposed foundations.
How to Recognize the Signs of Infestation
If you think you have either a carpenter ant infestation or a termite infestation on your hands, here are some of the signs to look for:
Carpenter Ant Infestation
- Ant sightings inside the house: The presence of worker ants and swarmers inside the house during spring is almost always an indication that you have a heavy infestation on your hands. However, seeing insects inside doesn't always mean that the nest is also located inside - ants can travel up to 100 yards from their nest to find a food source. Following the trail of ants can sometimes reveal their nesting sites inside a structure, which usually include: areas around plumbing in kitchen and bathrooms, voids under bathtubs, voids above doors and windows, window sill plates, areas between the roof and ceiling of flat-deck porches, cellars, crawlspaces, attics, etc.
- Frass: The presence of small piles of frass under infested wood items is an indication that an ant colony is present.
- Crunching noise: A rustling, crunching, or mulching noise coming from windowsills, walls, or ceilings is another sign of infestation. The sounds are made with the mandibles and are not related to chewing wood; they become greater when the colony is disturbed.
- Mud tunnels: An experienced pest control professional can easily recognize the exploratory mud tubes connecting the nest to the food sources that run up the sides of an infested structure.
- Winged termite sightings: Between March and May, winged termites swarm in search of potential nesting sites where the king and queen can establish new colonies. They are attracted to light, so you will often notice them seeking light near indoor light fixtures and clinging to screens and windows.
- Damaged wood: The most obvious sign of infestation is wood damage, but in some cases you may not be able to observe it at all. Termites hollow out wood along the grain making it appear crushed or sunken at structural bearing points. Infested wood resonates with a dull, hollow sound when tapped with a hammer and can be easy to break through.
Because differentiating between a carpenter ant and a termite infestation is challenging for the naked eye, homeowners should not see it as a do-it-yourself project, especially if the infestation is advanced and threatens the structural integrity of the building. Rather, they should act quickly and hire a pest control company
that is well established in their area in order to prevent carpenter ants or termites from spreading in or near their property.
About the Author
Daniel Mackie, co-owner of Greenleaf Pest Control, is a Toronto pest control expert well-known as an industry go-to guy, an innovator of safe, effective pest control solutions, and is a regular guest on HGTV. Mackie, along with business partner Sandy Costa, were the first pest control professionals in Canada to use detection dogs and thermal remediation for the successful eradication of bed bugs. In his free time, he is an avid gardener.