Carpenter ants and termites share a number of common behavioral characteristics. Both are six-legged social insects that live together in sizable colonies. Both excavate wood, and both are useful in natural, wild settings as they speed the decomposition of moist, decaying wood. Both emerge in the spring in flying swarms to mate. In residential or commercial settings, however, either is a cause for concern, and anxious property owners often confuse the two.
Anatomical Differences Between Carpenter Ants and Termites
For those willing to take a closer look, carpenter ants and termites have a number of visual anatomical differences:
- Antennae—Carpenter ants have antennae that are angled or elbowed in the middle. Termites have straight antennae.
- Waist—Carpenter ants have pinched, wasplike waists between their thorax and abdomen. Termites have broader waists, with little definition in shape between the thorax and abdomen.
- Wings—Carpenter ants have two sets of wings, but the forewings are longer than the back wings. Termites also have two sets of wings, but the forewings and back wings are equal in length.
- Workers—Carpenter ants that are workers are wingless, are dark brown or black, and may wander through a house while foraging for food. Termite workers are also wingless, but they are creamy white and remain unseen, safe from light in colony tunnels.
Visual Differences in Signs of Infestation
Carpenter ants and termites also differ in how they use the wood that they excavate. Carpenter ants don’t actually consume wood; they prefer honeydew from aphids and scale insects that feed on tree sap. They’re tunnelers, preferring moist wood easily excavated while carving out a nest. In contrast, termites do consume wood and are able to digest the cellulose it contains thanks to specialized enzymes, bacteria and symbiotic protozoa in their digestive system. This fundamental difference results in some visual signs observant property owners can also use to determine which pest they may have:
- Mud Tubes—Subterranean termites construct tunneled tubes of a pulpy mudlike substance to extend their access to wood without risking exposure to light. Mud tubes can also serve as swarm exit points. Tubes are usually the diameter of a pencil but may curve or wind to provide a passageway over foundations, basement walls, mud sills, door and window trim, or other construction features.
- Piles of Frass—Carpenter ants will kick out or discard wood shreds, waste, prey remains and other debris as they tunnel out galleries, leaving cone-shaped piles of frass beneath or near nest openings.
Carpenter Ant Nests Versus Termite Nests
Both carpenter ants and termites are destructive insect pests, but differences in their nesting habits, life cycles and biology require treatment specific to that particular insect. What works for one is unlikely to work for the other.
- Carpenter ants use permanent trails, so residential foragers will eventually lead a vigilant observer back to a nest entrance. However, these industrious insects are known for their satellite nests and for returning to nests that are actually located outdoors.
- Termites nests are mobile, with colonies that can number in the millions closely following the food source—wood—and remaining near or in it.
Despite the visual and behavioral disparities, determining whether carpenter ants or termites are at fault for an invasion can be difficult. If you suspect that either of these pests has invaded your property, Terminix of West Michigan is ready to help. Contact us today!
We proudly serve Muskegon, as well as many other locations, so check out our service area and see if we can make it to your home or business.