Do You Have Flying Ants or Termites?

These are definitely termites. Aleksey Gnilenkov/Flickr

Imagine that you’re preparing dinner when suddenly you notice a swarm of ant-like insects crawling on your kitchen counter.

If you live in the South or in the lower portion of either coast, your first reaction might be one of panic: "TERMITES!!"

Not so fast. They could be flying ants.

Missy Henriksen, vice president of public affairs at the National Pest Management Association in Fairfax, Va., says there’s an easy way to determine which of these unwanted visitors has found its way into your home. Give them a quick visual once-over.

This should be fairly easy since they probably won’t be flitting about. Neither flying ants nor termites are good flyers, Henriksen says, so you won’t have to capture and hold them. Just lean over the countertop and take a close look, paying particular attention to three body parts:

  1. The antennae
  2. The waist
  3. The wings

Here’s what to look for and how you can determine whether the intruders are flying ants or termites:

Body part | Flying ants | Termites

Antennae | Bent | Straight

Waist | Narrow | Broad

Wings | Front larger than hind | Equal

It’s important to know the difference, Henriksen says, because termites cause $5 billion in property damage annually in the United States. If you determine that you have termites or you're unsure from the visual inspection, she says the best source for identification and treatment is a trained and licensed pest management professional. “Termites are not a pest you want working in your house,” she emphasizes.

Other signs that you might have termites, according to Henriksen, are finding clusters of discarded wings, or small piles of what appears to be sawdust or mud shelter tubes.

When termites are mating, they fly in swarms in a mating ritual in which they discard their wings, Henriksen says. The material that appears to be sawdust is actually fecal matter, she adds. The mud “tunnels,” which are about the width of a pencil, are built over wood or other surfaces, and the termites use them as “secret” passageways.

The small piles of fecal pellets are indicative of dry wood termite infestation, says Dr. Jim Fredericks, director of technical services at the National Pest Management Association and an entomologist.

Dry wood termites are most common in southern California and Florida, Fredericks points out. In the Southwest, the western dry wood termite (Incisitermes minor) is the most common dry wood termite. It can also occasionally occur in Florida and on both coasts. The West Indian dry wood termite (Cryptotermes brevis) is the most widespread dry wood termite in Florida. Its range extends westward across the entire U.S. Gulf Coast to Corpus Christi, Texas.

The most common kind of termites throughout the rest of the United States are subterranean termites, he says. The most common subterranean termite is the Eastern subterranean termite (Reticulitermes flavipes). Another subterranean termite active in the Southern United States is the Formosan termite (Coptotermes formosanus).

The most important message for homeowners, says Fredericks, is that termites often go unnoticed until there is a visible sign of their presence, such as a swarm. Swarming, he says, is an indication termites are flying out to mate and to form a new colony. In this reproductive winged stage, he says it is likely that the swarm represents the presence of a mature colony of termites.

There are a number of ants that can behave in the same manner as termites. These ants also ring homeowners’ ant/termite alarm bells because they resemble termites in their flying stage. Considered structural pests, these ants also will nest — then swarm — inside the house, Fredericks says. This is when they typically are encountered by homeowners, he adds.

Some common ant species that produce winged reproductives (swarmers), according to Fredericks, include:

  • Pavement ants (Tetramorium caespitum) – These are often found in homes built on concrete slab foundations, but can be found in just about any type of construction.
  • Odorous house ant (Tapinoma sessile) – This is the most common indoor pest ant.
  • Carpenter ants (Camponotus sp.) – Carpenter ants are considered wood-destroying pests and can cause significant damage to the wood inside a structure.
  • Red imported fire ants (Solenopsis invicta) – These are more common outside in the Southeastern and Southern United States. Red imported fire ants can inflict painful stings that can result in dangerous allergic reactions in susceptible people.

Just because no flying ants or termites are present doesn’t necessarily mean homeowners should breathe a huge sigh of relief, Fredericks cautions. No sign of activity doesn’t mean flying ants or termites are not present.

The best way to give a homeowner peace of mind that dinner preparations won’t be interrupted by the discovery of surprise visitors crawling on the countertop, he advises, is to schedule an annual inspection.