Why even bother trying to decipher the difference between termites or ants, you ask. A bug is a bug, right? Well, not really.
Insects are the most diverse group of organisms on earth, with around 80% of our planet’s different species coming from this one particular group.
Often, different species of insect can seem quite similar at first glance, especially when they fulfill similar roles in the ecosystem.
Ants and termites are kind of like that. Both have six legs. Both are social insects. Both of them can cause tremendous damage to your home and property if you let them.
And if you’re just not that into bugs, you may not care all that much whether it’s ants or termites that are ruining your summer.
But you should. Despite some superficial similarities, ants and termites are entirely different creatures.
And these differences can become crucial when you’re trying to eliminate these pests. A treatment can be a very effective way of getting rid of termites and yet do nothing to local ants, or vice versa.
So if you want to rid yourself of whatever multi-legged scourge you’re facing, it’s time to brush up on your bug knowledge.
Flight Of The…What Is That?
Part of the reason termites and ants are so often confused with one another is that both of them can fly.
As social insects, only certain members of an ant or termite colony can reproduce. They do this by swarming.
Reproductive adults of both species will grow wings at certain times of the year, usually during the summer. They take flight in vast numbers, looking for new ground to carve out colonies of their own.
However, a close look will reveal some differences. Termites have straight antennae. Their bodies are of a more or less uniform thickness from head to abdomen.
They are generally black or dark brown, and the winged reproductive termites have two sets of wings that are of equal length.
Ants, on the other hand, have bent antennae with a visible ‘elbow’ joint in the middle. Their bodies are clearly segmented, with narrow waists (they must work out).
While many species are black in color, ants can also be red. And for flying ants, the two sets of wings are of unequal size.
Termites vs Ants: Check Their Diet
They say you are what you eat and when it comes to telling the difference between termites and ants, this is one useful tool.
Termites are best known for eating wood. It’s this behavior that brings them into conflict with humans, since we have a habit of building houses out of the stuff.
What termites are actually after is the cellulose in the wood. And as anyone who’s tangled with termites in the past will tell you, a mature colony of termites can eat a LOT of wood.
So much so, in fact, that they can bring the house down if given enough time to carve out their tunnels in the structure.
Ants are a diverse group, but one thing that’s safe to say about all of them is that they don’t eat cellulose.
Instead, ants eat other insects. They eat nectar and seeds. Some of them will happily take a bite out of a sandwich you left on your kitchen counter. But they wouldn’t be caught dead actually eating wood.
So your house is safe, right? Wrong. There are several species of carpenter ants which like to nest in wood just as termites do. They don’t eat it; they just carve galleries through it to make their colonies.
But that’s not much consolation when it’s your house they’re chewing their way through.
Termites or Ants: How Do They Hide?
Since they eat wood, termites live inside their own food source. Not a bad idea if you can pull it off. But from a pest-control point of view, this can make the presence of termites hard to detect.
They rarely need to leave the colony, except for the reproductives who venture out to mate or to expand. So you can have a termite problem for quite a while before you know about it.
Sometimes, the first indication that you have termites is seeing a swarm of the winged variety taking flight.
Alternatively, you may hear them in the walls. A large colony can make quite a bit of noise as the workers chew through the wood.
As an aside, a study found the termites chew through wood even faster when you play rock music at them, so don’t go thinking you can drive them out of your house with your questionable taste in music.
On the other hand, ants are usually easier to find. While many will build nests underground, the adults need to go out every day and forage for food.
And since most species of ant are most active during daylight hours, they’re generally not too hard to spot. Chances are you’ll know you have an ant problem long before you know you have a termite one.
The Bridge And Tunnel Crowd
One species of termite, in particular, has a habit you won’t find among ants. The subterranean termite, as its name implies, lives underground. These termites can’t survive without the high humidity they get from the soil.
And if they want to expand the colony, they need to find a way to do that without exposing themselves to drying out. They manage this by building mud tunnels.
So if you see one of these tubes on your property, it’s not ants that did it. The presence of mud tubes is a surefire sign you have termites.
But since nothing can ever be simple, the absence of mud tubes doesn’t mean you don’t have termites. And of course, if you did something really bad in a past life, it’s entirely possible to have both ants and termites.
The Enemy Of My Enemy Is Still My Enemy
Both ants and termites will aggressively defend their colonies if they have to. Both species have a soldier caste that has no other purpose than to defend the nest.
But since ants have a broader range of food preferences, which includes other insects, it’s not unheard of for ants to attack a termite colony. And this generally ends badly for the termites.
But if you are hoping to get rid of termites by introducing some aggressive ants, you’d be better off coming up with a different plan.
Ants will definitely eat termites, but actually eradicating the entire colony is unlikely. And even if they do, it wouldn’t happen quickly. The termites would have plenty of time to still cause significant damage to your home.
Also, now you have lots of well-fed and murderous ants on your hands. It’s not a good situation to be in.
There are various insecticides on the market to help you deal with both ants and termites. But which pesticides you choose and how you use them will be very different depending on which species it is that you’re trying to control.
That’s why it’s important to know the difference between ants and termites. If you want a treatment to work, you first need to know what exactly it is that you’re fighting.
Now armed with the above tips on termites vs ants, you can terminate whichever species has been causing you grief. Godspeed.