by David Moore
Manager of Technical Services and Board Certified Entomologist
with contributions by Eric Smith, PhD, BCE
The weather is finally beginning to warm up, which means that before long termites will be swarming. All it takes is a few days of warm weather and then a rainy day followed by another warm day, and out came some flying insects in the house, usually in the morning of that warm day. So, what are they, termites or ants? As a homeowner, what can or should you do?
Unfortunately, both termites and ants will release their swarmers (winged reproductives) about mid-morning of the warm day that follows the rainy day. Since termite swarmers are poor fliers, only a light breeze can be tolerated; if the wind picks up, the swarming will cease and they will try again later that day or on another day. Also, termites have trouble controlling water loss from their bodies, so a calm day with high humidity is required for a successful swarm.
So this is what you should do. First, capture several of the insects in a glass jar or plastic pill bottle. Be sure to capture some that have their wings still attached if at all possible, but at least collect some of the shed wings.
With your collected specimens in hand, you can make a preliminary identification of whether you are dealing with ant or termite swarmers using the following information:
- Wings. Termites have 4 wings of almost equal length that have many barely visible pale veins. Ants also have 4 wings but the hind wings are much shorter/smaller and the wings have only a few veins that are dark in color.
- Body. The termite body is uniformly wide/thickened behind where the wings are attached. In contrast, the ant’s body is constricted/pinched in behind where the wings are attached.
- Antennae/feelers on the head. The antennae of termites are like a series of pop-beads. In contrast, those of ants are elbowed (the first segment is about as long as the rest of the segments combined and the rest of the segments are all small).
Another thing that might help is the fact that the wings on termites (both sexes) readily break off at their base as soon as they get ready to mate, leaving lots of small darkish insects running about and piles of wings on surfaces. In contrast, ants keep their wings until they have mated and are ready to establish a colony and only then do the larger females/queens chew their wings off.
As I highly suggested above, you should capture some of the insects in a jar or Ziploc bag. Then call a pest management professional and have them confirm the identification. In addition, the pest management professional can also do a proper inspection of your house to evaluate any visible/probable damage from termite activity. These inspections are almost always at no cost to you. If you wish, call more than 2 or 3 pest management companies for an inspection.